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Condensed milk is a big reason for the distinctive taste of Vietnamese iced coffee. But why is it used in the first place? I did some research and here is what you want to know.
The biggest reason for using condensed milk in Vietnamese ice coffee with milk (Ca Phe Sua Da) is the fact that fresh milk wasn’t widely available in Vietnam and it doesn’t go bad quickly outside the fridge. Many people use Condensed milk to smooth out the strong taste of Vietnamese coffee.
There are a few other, smaller, reasons why Condensed milk is used in Vietnamese iced coffee. Keep reading to find out.
Does All Vietnamese Coffee Use Condensed Milk?
Does all Vietnamese Coffee use condensed milk? Well, no but it can be a bit confusing.
The term “Vietnamese coffee” is often used for a drink which mixed strong coffee, condensed milk and ice. That especially happens outside the country.
In Vietnam, the term Vietnamese coffee is used for coffee that is made from Vietnamese beans and brewed in a Phin (Traditional filter). Of course that coffee doesn’t come through the filter with the condensed milk. Now the confusion probably comes from the fact that the majority of Vietnamese drink their coffee with milk and ice. So to an outsider, that mix is “Vietnamese coffee”.
So for clarity, in this article, we’re talking about Ca Phe Sua Da (Coffee with milk and ice).
Reasons to use condensed milk
So why do they use condensed milk instead of normal milk? There are a few reasons why that’s the case.
The first reason and the basis of why many people put milk in Vietnamese coffee anyways is the type of beans that grow in Vietnam.
The majority of coffee beans grown in Vietnam, especially back in the days is Robusta. Robusta coffee plants are a bit less picky in where they like to grow, how much water they need and how resistant they are to diseases. They also produce more beans per hectare. So when the Arabica coffee didn’t really want to grow in Vietnam, the change was quickly made to Robusta.
In current days with modern agricultural techniques, Arabica is becoming more popular but it’s still a small part of the total production.
Robusta beans have the misfortune not to taste as good as Arabica beans. That’s on average, there certainly are higher and lower quality Robusta beans but most of the better once are exported. That does leave the lower quality beans for the domestic market.
To make them taste better there are things you can do in the roasting process. Which is what happens with a lot of Vietnamese coffee. If you want to know more about this, click here. Or you can add things like a pinch of salt in the grounds to counteract some of the less favorable tastes. However, there are still some tastes in there that are not the best.
The easiest thing to fix this, is to add dairy. This covers up the less favorable notes and create a delicious drink in the process. That’s why many people prefer the taste with milk in it since that really rounds out the taste.
So that explains why they add milk to Vietnamese coffee, but why condensed milk?
Up until relatively recently, there was no milk production in Vietnam to speak of. It wasn’t something traditionally consumed by Vietnamese in large quantities so there was no large milk industry. In recent years, milk and other dairy products have become more popular and the largest milk brands in the country are actually pretty large companies.
What’s a good way to get milk when your country doesn’t produce any? You have to import it. But importing fresh milk is difficult especially if it has to come from far. Pasteurized milk is easier but it still takes up a lot of space which makes it more expensive. Vietnamese consumer were (and are), let’s say “budget conscious” so that leaves canned condensed milk.
It’s basically concentrated milk so you get more milk per unit of volume. It’s relatively cheap and you can keep it forever, even if after opening.
So that’s why condensed milk was the only viable option to put dairy in your coffee for a long time.
Since condensed milk keeps well for ages, even after opening the can is a big plus in a country where the majority of people didn’t have a fridge. We all know milk goes bad pretty quickly if you leave it outside the fridge and especially in the heat. Since fresh milk isn’t very popular to drink or use in cooking in Vietnam, it’s not practical to use it just for coffee.
Condensed milk, especially sweetened condensed milk doesn’t go bad for quite a long time even after opening the can. Sure, it might get a little dry but it takes a long time before it actually goes bad. That makes it perfect if you just use some for coffee.
Of course today most people in Vietnam have a fridge and fresh milk has become more popular but condensed milk is still the most popular to put in your coffee.
Suggested: Is it safe to use condensed milk in coffee?
And the final big reason might be the most important one now but it’s probably also the reason why it became popular in the first place. It just tastes really good. It’s sweet and creamy, what else do you want?
There is nothing quite like a good Vietnamese iced coffee with milk. It’s a unique taste and texture you get in your mouth. It’s sweet, cold, creamy, thick, high in caffeine and tastes like coffee while covering up the things most people don’t like about coffee. It’s basically a coffee milkshake.
That taste and feel comes from the combination of the strong Vietnamese Robusta coffee and the sweetened condensed milk.
(Low quality) Vietnamese Robusta beans and condensed milk don’t sound very appetizing and you wouldn’t want them by themselves but the combination creates something special.
A cappuccino with sugar has roughly the same ingredients but it tastes very different.
I mentioned ‘low quality’ above because usually Robusta is seen as a cheap coffee with unfavorable taste that you just use to create a cheaper blend or round out the taste of a blend. However, there definitely are higher quality Robusta beans in Vietnam that make a good cup of coffee without any help from milk or sugar.
Why not change?
So if fresh milk is more readily available nowadays, why not change?
- Condensed milk is cheap and practical
- People are used to and like the taste
- It sweetens the coffee
- Mouth feel
- It’s traditional at this point
The biggest reason is that it’s what people are used to and like. Why fix something that isn’t broken? Fresh milk is used to make other types of coffee like cappuccino but for traditional Vietnamese iced coffee with milk, you just can’t beat sweetened condensed milk.
It also plays a big role in the feel of Ca Phe Sua Da. It’s very smooth and thick. A big reason for that is condensed milk. So if you’d change to fresh milk, you lose a big part of that. Sure, you can replace the sweetened milk for sugar but that still doesn’t quite do the same thing.
Many of the reasons why it was used originally have diminished somewhat but that doesn’t mean they’re completely gone. Most of the local coffee is still Robusta although more high quality coffee is becoming available to more people.
And many people still don’t drink milk or use it for cooking, etc. Fresh milk is just not an ingredient that’s used very often. It’s only seen as good for children and old people. So if you don’t consume a lot of milk, even a carton of pasteurized milk might go bad after a while, especially if you only use it for coffee. Condensed milk keeps longer inside or outside the fridge.
Why is Vietnamese iced coffee so sweet? Vietnamese iced coffee is usually served with sweetened condensed milk. While it just looks like thick milk, there’s actually quite a lot of sugar in there. If you get it without milk, they might have just added sugar which happens often even if you don’t ask for it. Finally there might be some butter and sugar added in the roasting process to round out the harsh taste of Robusta beans.
Favorite Vietnamese Coffee Products
To make Vietnamese coffee you don’t need many things so makes sure the things you use are correct!
Vietnamese Coffee: Get your traditional coffee from Nguyen coffee supply. It’s freshly roasted in the USA so it’s much fresher than imported bags. The used beans are 100% Vietnamese. Here’s a combo pack (Amazon) to see what you like best.
Phin: The only way to brew Vietnamese coffee is with a Phin. This one (amazon link) works well is cheap and reusable.
Scale: Even though a Phin isn’t super picky with weights, to brew and adjust your cups to be consistently delicious, a simple scale helps tremendously. I’ve been using this one (Amazon link) for over a year and while it’s not the most aesthetic, it works well.
Condensed milk: To make the delicious ca phe sua da, you need condensed milk. This one (Amazon link) is organic and works perfectly.