Let’s face it, there’s no point going overseas if you’re not going to take your tastebuds with you. With food it’s okay, you can explore and still find that subtle flavour you so comfortably enjoyed back home, with a little spice or flair. But when it comes to your favourite percolated brew the choices are endless. Sometimes you can be in a country where the barista has no clue as to what a cappuccino might be, so you’re going to have to step out of that comfort zone, and find a new temporary brew.
Chances are, if you are reading this, you know know the struggle. How do you tell him you want a small cappuccino when the board only says ‘hot/cold coffee’. Or how do you don’t him no sugar, when all he has is condensed milk? You’re pot out of luck – time to get some of that tasty glucose in your drink, you’ve got no choice.
The following are seven coffees that I have had while I’ve been galavanting across my favourite part of the world, Southeast Asia. I hope this list teases out some cultural differences in the way we drink, what we drink and how we drink coffee, and it will go to show that no matter how contrasting our worlds are, I still get my morning fix of a nicely blended brew.
Turkish coffee (Türk kahvesi)
The first type of coffee, or more correctly, preparation of coffee, is Turkish coffee. I say preparation because Turkish coffee is not a specific blend or bean. Turkish coffee refers to how the coffee is prepared. I first tried this in a Turkish restaurant in Malaysia – points for being obvious as to the type of restaurant.
My coffee was ordered with dinner, where the waiter responded “are you sure? It’s strong.” He wasn’t wrong either. The strength of the coffee is due to the fine grinding of the roasted beans, which is said to be the finest texture of ground coffee in comparison to any other. When I tried it I opted for the plain flavour, more commonly referred to in Arabic as ‘sada’. The coffee itself was served in a Turkish coffee pot made of copper with a wooden handle, this is the customary way for the coffee to be served and is poured into a small coffee cup. But before drinking it is common practice to cleanse the pallet with a glass of water.
The waiter also told me Turkish coffee is an integral element of the Turkish wedding process. The groom’s parents visit the bride’s family and the bride prepares the coffee for the guests. She spikes the groom’s coffee with salt so as to gauge his character.I later confirmed this through a friend of mine who further elaborated that if the groom loves the girl he will drink the salty coffee without so much as a peep of complaint.
Vietnamese Coffee – Iced (Ca phe sua da)
I have a severe sweet tooth and while it is an uphill struggle, I generally try to eat (and drink) healthy and limit my sugar intake. With this in mind, I became addicted to the second drink in the list, the sugary Vietnamese local coffee ca phe sua da. Vietnamese coffee shares a similar fine texture to Turkish coffee. The roasted French coffee beans are dripped through the iconic Vietnamese filter into a quarter of a glass of condensed milk and poured on ice – all of this which is done by you in the cafe, so that you experience the journey of your own drink. Condensed milk is the staple ingredient for these coffees, so you can start to see why you have no choice if you don’t take sugar.
Ca phe sua da is a contemporary, yet nostalgic, reminder of the French influence so strongly displayed in Vietnam after its 19th Century colonisation. Especially with this style of coffee and the trend of using French beans such as Cafe du Monde. However, the Vietnamese Startbucks equivalent Trung Nguyen also does a good blend and has franchises on every corner in the main areas of Vietnam.
While I may have mentioned there was a French influence in Vietnam, the country itself has since become a world leader in the coffee export industry through its industry in the central highlands. Ho Chi Minh has had boutique cafes spring up in the past decade to take advantage of the great architecture and ambition of young local coffee enthusiasts. I spent some time in Vietnam so had the privilege of exploring a few of these boutique cafes, but my favourite for ca phe sua da, and popular with locals, was L’Usine.
Kopi Luwak – the cat coffee
When I first heard of this coffee I thought someone was pulling my leg. There is no way a market can exist for coffee that has been excreted by an animal. But to my surprise it is true – kopi luwak is the end product of a bean that has been eaten by an Asian palm civet, a small cat-like creature native to South and Southeast Asia, digested, defecated, collected by farmers and cleaned and roasted.
The coffee is said to have higher nutritional qualities and a greater taste after it has made its way from cat to cup.
Due to the nature of supply and supposed delicacy, it is again a surprise that people are willing to pay a lot of money for this coffee as it is considered a rarity both to locals and to foreigners. Retail prices can reach more than $800AUD/€550. I brewed a Bodum full of this kopi luwak in inspiration for this article and to be honest, it doesn’t appeal to me for a $15 cup. Aside from the fact I am currently drinking coffee beans picked from an animal’s faeces, the coffee itself has a strong dull taste that leaves the mouth quite powdery.
Indian filter coffee (kaapi) or meter coffee
I first tried kaapi in Jakarta, Indonesia. Indian filter coffee is, like Turkish coffee, in reference to the mode of preparation rather than the actual beans per se. The beans I tried when I first tried it with were Arabica blend which are grown in the southern parts of India. When you order it in a traditional sense, there are a number of parts to the preparation of the coffee. That, and you have to wait as it is a slow drip coffee, slower than Vietnamese coffee too – so don’t be in a rush for a quick cup.
The process allows the top cup to hold on to the water a little longer so as to extract more of the coffee as it passes into the final cup – this long process creates a strong coffee. In fact, I don’t recommend having this one as an after-dinner coffee, because you’re probably not going to sleep. I have only had the privilege of having two of these types of slow drip indian coffees and both of them blew my socks off. I would say one cup is on par with two espressos – in terms of strength.
The second time I had this coffee was in Kuala Lumpur in Little India. I told the barista about my experience and he said I’d been shown half of the process – and this is where the real fun started with this coffee. He proceeded to mix the coffee with boiling milk and with a metal cup in both hands poured the mixture from cup to cup with his arms stretched out. That was where the term meter coffee clicked in my head. For a demonstration, watch this video.
I first read about this in a paleo craze article on a blog I subscribe too. It was first introduced as ‘Bulletproof’ Coffee and now it has taken over as the coffee for health fanatics. I had never subscribed to the idea of trying buttered coffee and the thought seemed like slapping god in the face and ruining a perfectly good drink. That was until I went for a coffee in a small side street market stall in Penang and was convinced by the owner to try his ‘special’ coffee. I thought to myself I had better scribble out a will on a napkin in case he drugs me, but turns out his special ingredient was a lump of butter.
So how did he come across this recipe? He said his family was not well off in India and could not afford repairs to their fridge so they were not able to keep milk. Before work each morning his father would put butter in his coffee instead of milk. Lo and behold, this man now runs a lucrative business in Penang riding on the back of his families misfortune.
To be honest the taste was surprisingly amazing. I am waiting for this to kick off in health-driven cafes in Australia with a grass-fed butter option.
Coffee in a bag
I put this one in more as a joy than as a type of coffee. Drinking coffee out of a small plastic bag with a straw slipped in the top is commonplace in South East Asia for three reasons: it’s cheaper than disposable cups, they don’t fill up the bins as much and are very convenient to hang off the handlebars of a scooter or bike – innovative isn’t it?
All of the coffees I ordered in bags were requested with a simple “white coffee” and “iced” for the local barista, which, if you are travelling in remote areas such as Johor Bahru, is about the only thing one would understand in English in my experience. That is, until I learnt how to pronounce “coffee”, “white” and “cold” in malay. These are much like the finalised version of the ca phe sua da in Vietnam with the sweetened condensed milk used in the coffee. When I came back home after a number of months of relying on this coffee I had a ridiculously high sugar addiction. Despite the sweetness, which you get used to, this was my favourite type of coffee to drink and left me quite full after it.
With that said, it is almost entirely refreshing to come back to a familiar place with an alien tourist palette and go back to drinking the coffee you once drank to boost you up for a day of work or study.
What I learnt out of travelling these places wasn’t just the different ways in which one bean can be presented, but that everyone has a story behind their brew. From the waiter telling me about the Turkish bride spiking coffee with salt, being told about the cat that eats coffee beans, or the broken fridge being an inspiration for a new recipe. They all have their own personal connection with something so simple that we consume every day.
With those six coffees in mind, try to explore your own experiences with the drink, and if you have had any others write it down in the word box below. There must be plenty out there.