How to make real Vietnamese coffee

To top off a refreshing plate of Vietnamese food on a hot day, we often go for a Vietnamese iced coffee. It’s the perfect sweet and cool complement for a bowl of pho, vermicelli, or a banh mi sandwich. With the temperatures hitting the 80s and 90s this week in New York City, I’ve been wondering how to replicate that particular deep, sweet, and viscous restaurant taste at home during the work week.

It’s not exactly a secret, but it requires a few inexpensive items. The three things you’ll need are:

  • A phin, which is a metal Vietnamese coffee dripper
  • The right coffee
  • Sweetened condensed milk

Here’s a short explanation of each item:

Phin (Vietnamese filter brewer)
This classic Vietnamese filter dripper includes a lid, a cup, and a kind of perforated metal tamper. I bought a Long Cam brand phin, which is made in Vietnam, at KK Discount in Chinatown (78 Mulberry Street, 9am-6pm).

The smallest, single-serving size is around 4 oz at $5, while the 9Q, which was the only larger option in stock, brews ~10 oz and was $11.

When you’re making Vietnamese coffee, go for “Made in Vietnam”

Coffee
This whole Vietnamese coffee thing started off for me when I purchased some Nguyen Coffee at Essex Market on the Lower East Side. They have great graphic design, a cool website, and are roasted in Brooklyn. Finding their product inspired me to try making my own coffee. The problem is their True Grit peaberry robusta that I bought is rough. It’s strong, vegetal-smelling, and hard on the stomach, plus it doesn’t taste like the right blend for a true Vietnamese coffee. If I had to pick again, I’d go with their Loyalty robusta/arabica blend, which promises to be smoother and more balanced.

Next I tried Trung Nguyen Premium Blend, which was recommended by many as the prototypical Vietnamese coffee. It comes pre-ground for the phin and even prints its recipe on the label. I assume that some of its distinctiveness comes from the addition of chocolate flavors to its roast. I bought it at Tan Ting Hung Supermarket (121 Bowery, 9am-6pm), $8.75 for 15 oz. They were incredibly helpful, letting me sneak in right at closing time and helping me find everything I needed.

Trung Nguyen Premium Blend

In its distinctive orange cans, Cafe Du Monde from New Orleans is also popular, though interestingly it is an American Southern-style roast with chicory and not a Vietnamese brand. It owes its popularity in this recipe to the Vietnamese community that settled in New Orleans following the Vietnam War. I’ll have to do a taste test between the two soon since these are the two most popular brands for Vietnamese coffee here in the US.

Recipe
Here is the recipe for preparing Vietnamese filter coffee, courtesy of the Trung Nguyen brand:

  1. Put 3 tbsp of coffee (about 20g) into the filter. Gently shake and lock the coffee press.
  2. Pour 20 ml boiling water (205-212 F / 90-100 C) into the filter. Wait until the coffee has fully absorbed water. Add 45 ml of boiling water into the filter.
  3. Place the cap. Wait 5-7 minutes for the coffee to drip through the grinds. Note that the coffee must drip slowly to capture the pure coffee essence. Add sugar or condensed milk to taste.
Credit for the recipe goes to this coffee can

Tip: It’s been recommended elsewhere to wet the inside bottom of the phin before adding the coffee so that the first grounds don’t fall through the perforations.

Final Thoughts
For the coffee nerds like me, the Trung Nguyen recipe above is a 1:1 bloom, total water to coffee ratio of 3.25:1, which is crazy, particularly when considering that a strong cup of specialty pour-over is a 16:1 ratio. I have seen other recipes recommend up to a 10:1 ratio for the same cup and elsewhere I’ve seen a bloom of up to 5 minutes recommended to really draw out the flavor of the cup.

I assume that the high dose of coffee is useful to compensate for putting the coffee on ice, as well as getting that true, ultra-condensed flavor. Looking forward to experimenting more to get closest to that true taste.