In our cups

Although the holiday orgy of gift giving includes the giving of many pointless gifts, I was pleased to score yet more coffee-brewing equipment: a matched set of implements from Vietnam, like little tin cups with filter bottoms. I have a large and unwieldy collection of French presses, stove-top mokas, drip pots, pump-driven espresso machines, grinders manual and electric — but I didn’t have these things, had never heard of them, and did not think I was missing anything until I tasted the coffee they produced.

The cups are something of a cross between percolators, mokas, and drip devices: ground coffee is placed between a layer of filters at the bottom, the cup is placed over the destination vessel, and boiling water is poured in at the top. The water slowly drips through the layer of coffee to whatever you’ve set underneath, and while this can take several minutes, that interval gives a fairly long steep and produces an intense but smooth brew.

The charm factor is raised, at least in Vietnam, by the brewing of the coffee into a small pool of condensed milk, which is (as we bakers of cream pies know) sweetened. I no longer keep cans of the stuff around, but I did discover that a few ounces of scalded milk mixed with a teaspoon or two of sugar produces a pleasantly creamy sweetening.

More important is the use of Vietnamese coffee. We were given, with our cups, a packet of Nam Nguyen brand coffee, coarsely pre-ground and looking quite ordinary. Then we brewed it and found ourselves bewitched by a distinctly chocolately bouquet. The presence of chicory was suspected (as in New Orleans–style coffee), so I ground some Trader Joe’s decaf espresso roast and brewed it in a Vietnamese cup to make sure the brewing method wasn’t somehow producing a miracle. It wasn’t, though the coffee was quite good.

The resemblance of Vietnamese to New Orleans–style coffee isn’t surprising, given the long French tutelage in both places. Chicory root has been used for centuries to stretch coffee supplies and mask staleness, and because it contains no caffeine, its blending with coffee probably helps reduce the nerve-jangling effects of the latter. There is also some evidence that it has a tonic effect on the liver — an encouraging factoid to keep in mind if you seek a coffee to help lift any fog remaining from New Year’s Eve.

Paul Reidinger