In the future, if pop culture historians were to ever dredge up the top social media trends that defined the COVID-19 worldwide lockdown, I can bet my last coffee bean that dalgona coffee would be right up there riding the crest. The creamy-headed beverage, itself jostling for space with everything from banana bread and bad home haircuts to auto-tuned renditions of bella ciao.
And while the genesis of dalgona coffee is (erroneously!) attributed to both a popular Korean caramel-coffee candy of the same name and to our very own, beaten to submission, desi phheti hui coffee, its true origins lie in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi in the guise of ca phe trung. Something I discovered on a trip to Vietnam a year ago. This, back in the good old days when I believed social distancing to be my private idiosyncrasy and when ‘Corona’ was still just another brand of beer!
Lending a certain gravitas to the “necessity is the mother of invention” proverb, dalgona coffee’s egg-enriched predecessor ca phe trung was the canny invention of a Hanoian barista named Nguyen Van Giang in 1946 at his coffee shop called Café Giang.
Relishing the thick, creamy and surprisingly non-eggy tasting hot coffee, seated in the legendary café perched along Hanoi’s ‘Coffee Street’ aka Trieu Viet Vuong in the historic Hai Ba Trung district, I got a crash course in all things ca phe trung, thanks to the chatty manager.
Apparently, a post WWII shortage of tinned condensed milk that went into the then-popular iced ca pe sua da, steered Giang in the direction of stiffly beaten egg yolks to provide a creamy heft and rich taste to the coffee beverage that he decided to serve hot. Thus, imbuing his brand-new coffee concoction with a sort of rich, Tiramisu-esque texture and taste.
But unlike dalgona that has just the creamy layer sitting atop hot or cold milk, ca phe trung has a thick body all the way through, making it more of a hybrid hot dessert than drink. One that is best tackled with a spoon, not sipped.
Akin to the coffee beverage version of a set of nesting Russian dolls, I was soon to learn that there was yet another story within the story related to how Vietnam’s obsession with condensed milk — both as the dairy and sweetener component — in regards to its coffee drinking experience came about. And it was the French colonialists that set the course.
After producing the easy to cultivate robusta variety of coffee beans in Da Lat in climatically suitable central Vietnam in the early 1900s, the French realised that milk was hard to come by. This was because milk and other dairy products had never been a part of the Vietnamese diet. And are still not, to this day.
To fill in this deficit, the French started to import tinned condensed milk, which was first used in traditional French coffee preparations like café au lait and then in the more localised Vietnamese iterations that sprung forth.
Over my one week in the country, as I dove further into Vietnam’s coffee culture, I soon came to some interesting realisations. There is no ‘grab-and-go’ coffee shop concept here. People prefer to sit down at cafés and have leisurely, conversation-enhanced coffee drinking sessions.
Despite being second only to the Brazilians in terms of coffee bean (both arabica and robusta) exports at an annual turnover of about $3.10 billion, the Vietnamese prefer the sharper, bitter flavour and higher caffeine content of the less popular robusta coffee beans for their personal consumption.
And this is why the big international coffee chains like Starbucks and Gloria Jean’s Coffee — both of whom primarily use the milder arabica beans in their beverages — have failed miserably in the local market that is dominated by cheaper, more artisanal cafés.
And why not? It is in places like these, literally on every street corner in the big cities and small towns of Vietnam, that one can get a taste of even more experimental versions of coffee beverages. From a yogurt coffee to a hipster-chic avocado and banana smoothie-meets-frappe called sinh to ca phe chuoi bo, the variety on offer boggles the mind. Maybe they’ll even have a dalgona someday. If not already.
The Mumbai-based writer and restaurant reviewer is passionate about food, travel and luxury, not necessarily in that order.