Coffee, Tea or . . . Both?

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cafe sua daVietnam has a vibrant cafe culture, centered primarily around the tradition of drinking Cafe Sua (Cà phê sữa) – a style of coffee distinctly Vietnamese. Coffee was not always important to the Vietnamese, of course, as coffee beans are not grown very close to that part of Southeast Asia. Coffee and the concept of the cafe were brought to the region by the French during the colonial period, and the Vietnamese became so enamoured of the energizing brew they developed their own culturally-specific way of preparing and drinking it.

Cafe Sua is made with a special stainless steel brewing container with tiny holes in the bottom that is placed over the top of a glass and then packed with very finely ground coffee, which is sometimes supplemented with chicory. Boiling water is then poured into the container to drip very slowly through the grounds into a 1/2 inch-or-so layer of sweetened condensed milk in the bottom of the glass. The coffee is generally stirred completely after it is finished brewing, and in hotter weather it is typically served iced and called Cafe Sua Da (Cà phê sữa đá).

As most of you know, or could at least infer by the country’s location, tea is also important in Vietnam. Typical teas range from the distinctive pungency of lotus-scented green tea to Tra Atiso, an infusion of artichoke leaves and petals. Most of the teas and non-tea infusions from Vietnam have a certain overall flavor profile, sort of green and sometimes bitter.

Interestingly, the traditional way that Cafe Sua is served in a Vietnamese-style cafe is alongside a cup or glass of tea. The tea is provided as a complimentary accompaniment to the coffee, and is continually refilled for as long as the patron is in the place, or until the coffee is done, which sometimes means the same thing. The experience of the two drinks together is quite pleasant. The tea has a sort of calming effect on the coffee, which is very strongly flavored, and strongly caffeinated. The tea also prevents the drying thirst that sometimes results from drinking strong coffee.

From what I’ve been able to determine through reading and through personal experience – not in Vietnam, but in what, from all appearances seems to be a transplanted typical Vietnamese style cafe in White Center, Washington, a tad south of Seattle – the tea served with the coffee is Vietnamese green tea. The last time I experienced this I paid particular attention to the tea. This was during the summer, so both the coffee and the tea were served iced. There were a couple of tea pitchers that were used to continually top up the customer’s glasses. The pitchers were kept full by adding concentrated tea from a metal pot and then adding water from a large cistern. Ice was added every so often also. The tea was lotus-scented green tea, and was made somewhat weakly.

Cafe Tam Thanh

The establishment I went to is one that I do not think non-Vietnamese speakers venture into very often. All of the other patrons were quite at home, smoking, playing video games and watching sports or the Vietnamese music television show on the widescreen LCD near the back as they sipped on their sweet, syrupy coffee and lightly refreshing tea. The place is quite dark, and quite unassuming from the outside. Stepping into it, I sensed that it was one of those rarely encountered reproductions of a slice of distant home culture. Research on Vietnamese cafe culture later confirmed this. Naturally, while out of my element in a place where little English is spoken, I was careful to be respectful and not act like a tourist. As a result, my photographic documentation was covert, although I would have loved to get a couple shots of the great neon above the bar and the way the slick stone bar glistened below it.

Read more about Cafe Sua Da and more about Vietnamese Cafe culture.

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7 Comments

  1. This is a lot like what’s found in St Paul. There’s a very big Hmong community here so there are a lot of Vietnamese-style restaurants. However, I will still have to take up the cause of tea instead of coffee. Outside this little subculture there are going to be few realms where tea and coffee can coexist side-by-side like this.

    • For purposes of clarification, by “subculture” you mean Vietnamese immigrant communities in the US, right? I’m sure you didn’t intend otherwise, but Vietnam itself is certainly more than a subculture, and it’s the source of this tradition.

      Personally, I don’t have a need for establishing any sort of hierarchy regarding tea or coffee, but my motivations and interests are more centered around participating in traditional beverage (and food) cultures, some of which encompass coffee or wine. (I’d certainly not defend sweetened condensed milk on any kind of health benefit basis! I don’t usually even like anything that contains sugar and I never consume milk, except this last time when I forgot to ask them to omit it.)

  2. Cinnabar, what did you think of the green tea? Did it taste pretty similar to the taste of Chinese greens? The reason I ask is that I think in Vietnam, they grow the Cambodian varietal of tea: Camellia sinensis var. parvifolia, which is distinct from the sinensis and assamica varietals. I’ve never had it, but I imagine it would have rather a different flavor profile.

    • It’s very different from Chinese green teas. Even in a diluted iced form I could recognize that it was Vietnamese tea. I actually didn’t taste the lotus until about the third glass, after I had watched the server make more iced tea, which might mean that the earlier tea was just tea. Vietnamese teas have a character of their own that’s hard to define, but I’d say that maybe the best way to describe them is that they’re more vegetal and astringent. Vietnamese cuisine in general has a distinctive set of flavors and scents that are pretty recognizable – and very non-Chinese, if that makes sense.

  3. haha sounded like a shady place when shady people go to gossip and have fun where time just stands still

  4. The thought of drinking coffee and tea together sounds very neat. I wonder if coffee/tea blends will be on the horizon someday…

    Sounds like a promising hybrid

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