Irene Hau, an Asian American based in Texas, likes to explore issues surrounding mental health, medicine, and culture, but her curiosity covers a range of topics so nothing is off limits. That being said, she adopts an inclusive perspective on subjects and aims to be objective, unless called for or to add flair.
Food is powerful in uniting people: when people eat, they come together to share an experience through flavors and cooking. As a Vietnamese American, one of these experiences is cafe phin, also known as cà phê sữa đá. It’s a robust and aromatic coffee that is brewed through a special device, called a phin, straight over condense milk and poured over ice. Although the coffee is initially strong and bitter, as it settles and mixes with the milk, then eventually ice, it creates a rich and nutty flavor that is reminiscent of Vietnamese culture. Between different regions and families, there can be multiple ways to prepare the beverage, but regardless of origin, cafe phin follows a few intricate steps and specific ingredients that can be mastered and adjusted for each individual taste.
“As a Vietnamese American, one of these experiences is cafe phin"
A phin is a coffee brewing device with 4 components: the cup spanner, filter chamber, filter press, and the cap. The spanner rests on top of a glass with the chamber snug on top. Within the chamber lies the filter press, and finally the cap on the top. Water is poured from the top after the cap is removed and goes through the phin to reach the cup underneath. Both the chamber and the filter press help hold the grounds while also filtering the coffee alongside the spanner. The cap keeps the heat and flavor from escaping and provides a seat for the whole phin after the coffee is done dripping.
The coffee beans are typically a Robusta variety that are dark roasted and ground to a coarse texture; however, most full bodied and caffeinated assortments can be used. Personally, my bean of choice is usually from local roasteries including This Little Bean of Mine, especially since they cater their palette to toastier scents like cocoa and brown sugar. For more accessible brands, the Starbucks Winter Blend works wonders and the classic Cafe Du Monde brand is also popular among many households.
Sweetened condensed milk is crucial to bringing a touch of creamy sweetness that brings out the complexity of the coffee. It’s usually poured in a light layer in the initial glass underneath the phin, so that the heat from the coffee makes it easier to mix. Although it can be substituted with regular sugar and milk, condensed milk has an almost caramel and intense cream essence that can’t be replicated.
Prepare the Glass with Condensed Milk
Set up the Phin & Fill with Coffee
Stir & Pour Over Ice
Cà phê sữa đá has experienced many innovative iterations in modern coffee culture with additions of mocha, coconut cream, and egg, so don’t feel constrained to stick to only one method. Even though cafe phin is a traditionally South Asian drink prepared a certain way, there are ways you can change it up to your liking. Like a piece of literature or art, a simple cup of coffee can tell a story and bring people together.