On the Viscosity of Coffee
I always hated coffee.
It wasn’t so much the bitterness, I just found it unpleasant to drink. Even now, black coffee is something to be endured rather than savoured, a way to feed the habit when there’s nothing else around.
Friends used to tell me “you’ve never had good coffee” — the standard response upon learning that someone else has a different experience with something you love.
I try to avoid the same cliche, but it’s hard not to wonder if people might not change their minds about stinky tofu if only they’d tried some from that one stall outside the bus station in Changde. (I jest, but seriously, it can be quite nice).
Every time a friend would take me to try the good stuff, they’d be amazed to discover that, despite my usually unreliable grasp on my own sense of taste, I did indeed, not like coffee.
It seemed to genuinely perplex people that the only difference to me between a Starbucks Americano and the Ethiopian single blend offered by their favourite out-of-the-way, back-alley coffee shop with the defunct lighting and shin-high tables aesthetic was not the rich undertones of the coffee itself, but that one comes in a plastic cup and is significantly larger.
So what changed? What took me from an avowed despiser of tea’s greatest rival to a two-cups-a-day man? It certainly wasn’t discovering the good stuff. At least, not with regards to the coffee itself.
What got me hooked was how the coffee was served, and the addition of the real good stuff: condensed milk.
I’d been to Vietnam a couple of times before Nhung introduced me to her family, back when I was getting ready to propose. It was my third trip, and the first time I’d given the local coffee a go.
This is going to sound dumb—primarily because it is —but now that I was taking the next big step to starting a family that would be indelibly linked to the country and culture of Vietnam, it seemed only appropriate I give this coffee lark a serious shot.
An incredibly superficial gesture to be sure. But that was part of the logic. That and the knowledge that many of the things I hated as a child are things I’ve grown to like in adulthood, a fact that has led me to be far more open to retrying foods I’ve previously steered clear of. (A lot of this may be down to my mother’s terrible cooking. Who knew broccoli could be enjoyed?)
You see, coffee is everywhere in Vietnam. I failed to notice this on my first trip. Probably because literally everything else was new and amazing to me and the food was so gosh-darned good that I wasn’t paying much attention.
When I visited again, half a decade later, I noticed the street-side cafes, the clusters of low wooden and plastic chairs and tables crowding the pavements outside. Young and old alike, relaxing and chatting, sipping from small cups of coffee and glasses filled with bitterly strong green tea.
By the time I returned for my third visit, I was determined to give it a go, steeled to force myself to like this unpleasant, dark liquid stimulant the same way I’d forced myself to like beer as a teenager: by drinking enough of it (not necessarily in one go) to flip the switch in my brain over to “Okay, I like this now” mode.
As a kid, my poison was Fosters, in retrospect not the best choice I could have made. This time around I had much better luck, and rather than a gradual, months-long process of acclimatisation, it was an instant revelation.
Vietnamese coffee, specifically cà phê sữa đá (iced milk coffee), is thick. It’s made by mixing strong coffee with sweetened condensed milk and then pouring the results over ice. This produces a sweet, viscous liquid that nevertheless retains a strong coffee flavour.
In my eyes, it’s the Goldilocks balance between sweet and bitter. The flavour is rich and the consistency allows you to savour it slowly. The fact that it’s iced, well, that’s just the deal-sealing thingy on top of the cake.
All the “good” coffee people were trying to ween me onto was hot. I’m a northern-English boy living in the humid climbs of East Asia, I don’t ever want my coffee to be hot.
For that trip to Vietnam, I think I drank at least one cup of coffee every day. Luckily, my now mother-in-law’s neighbours run a coffee shop (I told you the stuff was everywhere), so even out in the country I could get my fix.
By the time we got back to China, I’d come around to the underlying taste enough that I could even enjoy the odd iced latte and stomach (but certainly not savour) the occasional Americano.
Speaking of Americanos, that’s what I’ve been drinking lately, though not by choice.
We ran out of condensed milk quite early into this lockdown. Considering how difficult it was to get even the most basic of foodstuffs for the first week or so of this nonsense (must…suppress…rant), replenishing our supplies of luxury items such as condensed milk was a fantasy.
Just getting our hands on some regular milk (not skimmed mind, grumble, grumble) has been a feat of incredible proportions, and so for a while I was down to black coffee, just “feeding the habit”.
When all this is over, the first thing I’m doing—once I’ve been outside and scratched my running itch, of course—is ordering some condensed milk and sitting down with a nice glass of cà phê sữa đá, maybe even a take-away bánh mì. It’s the best I can do until we get another chance to visit.