Adventures in Condensed Milk: How to Make Vietnamese Coffee and Vietnamese Yogurt

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

When the French came to Vietnam, they lugged with them their culinary traditions, among them coffee and  yogurt. Before driving the French out in 1954, the Vietnamese spent 80 years selectively integrating French techniques and ingredients into their cuisine, adopting what appealed, adapting what didn’t. In a tropical climate, condensed milk is easier to obtain and store than fresh milk.

Lori Writer / Heavy TableWhen the Vietnamese came to Minneapolis-St. Paul in the ’70s and ’80s, they brought with them a little Saigon and un petit peu de Paris.

Vietnamese Coffee (cà phê)
Dart into a Vietnamese restaurant along Eat Street in Minneapolis (Hien Deli or Phở Tàu Bay) or University Avenue in St. Paul (Saigon Restaurant & Bakery) to enjoy a Vietnamese filtered coffee (cà phê): black or sweetened (đen or sữa);  hot or iced (nóng or đá). Nothing feels more civilized and contemplative than watching the black coffee drip through the stainless steel phin filter into the sludge of condensed milk pooled at the bottom of your glass. Try as you might, you cannot hurry it, although some Vietnamese restaurants such as Quang Restaurant in Minneapolis and Trung Nam Bakery in St. Paul have tried to short-circuit it by delivering their coffee in a plastic cup, already stirred, iced, and pierced with a straw. Either way, the result will be bold, sweet, and smooth.

To invite a little Saigon into your own kitchen, all you’d need is a stop at one of the many Asian groceries in Minneapolis-St. Paul to outfit yourself with a phin filter, sweetened condensed milk, coffee, and the directions below.

According to Vietnamese coffee exporter Trung Nguyen’s website, Longevity, the preferred Vietnamese brand of sweetened condensed milk, “is made with more milk added for extra creaminess, and as a result, lightens coffee much better than Carnation or other brands available in America. Most brands sold in America now are including vegetable oils or thickeners to save money, but Longevity is 100% whole milk and sugar.”

Lori Writer / Heavy TableThe Heavy Table compared three brands of condensed milk alongside Longevity: two brands commonly available in American supermarkets, Borden’s Eagle and Nestle’s Carnation, and another brand commonly found in Asian Markets, Black & White, and found them nearly identical in ingredients (milk and sugar), calories (130 for 2 tablespoons), and nutritional content. We left a fourth brand, Parrot, behind on the shelves, as it contained soybean oil and other additives.

We were surprised to find the Longevity and Black & White brands chalkier (with Longevity being the chalkiest), while Eagle and Carnation were sweeter and more viscous (with Eagle being the sweetest and most pudding-like). On its own, we preferred Eagle. However, in Vietnamese coffee, it seemed too sweet. Longevity was our favorite in coffee.

Phin filters / brewers will run you $4-$5 at an Asian Grocery: in St. Paul at Shuang Hur or in Minneapolis at United Noodles Oriental Foods or Truong Thanh Grocery Store. The phin filter most commonly available in Minneapolis-St. Paul is made in Taiwan and has a screw-down-style screen (as opposed to the gravity-style screen traditionally found in Vietnam and used in the photos for this story), but both work essentially the same way. The phin has three components: a chamber, a screen or filter, and a cap that cleverly doubles as a saucer to prevent the chamber from pooling water and grounds on your table after the brewing is complete.

For the coffee itself, you can use your favorite whole bean coffee, ground coarsely as you would if using a French press, or Cafe Du Monde, which is a particular favorite of the Vietnamese. When I tried to buy one of the Vietnamese knock-offs of Cafe du Monde at a local Asian grocery and asked the cashier if it was the best, the cashier took the canister out of hand, disappeared down the aisle to the back of the store, and returned with Cafe du Monde. But, if you don’t like the licorice hint of chicory in your coffee, you may not like Cafe du Monde.

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

Vietnamese Coffee (Cà phê)
Serves 1

Ingredients
For black (đen) coffee:
1 rounded tbsp coffee, either Cafe Du Monde brand or your favorite beans ground as for a French press
2 c almost-boiling water (1 c for pre-heating your glass; remainder for making the coffee)

For sweetened (sữa) coffee:
1 to 4 tbsp sweetened condensed milk
1 rounded tbsp coffee, either Cafe Du Monde brand or your favorite beans ground as for a French press
2 c almost-boiling water (1 c for pre-heating your glass; remainder for making the coffee)

Optional for iced (đá) coffee:
Tall drinking glass of cracked (i.e., cubes that are broken, but not crushed) ice

Directions

  1. In a tea kettle, bring water nearly to a boil. Remove from heat.
  2. Heat an 8-oz drinking glass by pouring approximately 1 cup of water into glass, let stand for 30 seconds, then pour out. Dry glass with a towel.
  3. If using, pour condensed milk into glass.
  4. Set chamber component of phin on top of glass. Set screen / filter and cap aside.
  5. Put 1 rounded tbsp coffee into phin. Tap to level.
  6. Put screen / filter into phin. If using screw-top style, screw screen until it compresses coffee, then back it up one full turn.
  7. Pour water into phin until phin is ¼ full.  Wait 20 seconds.
  8. Pour water into phin. Fill to top.
  9. Place cap over phin.
  10. Read a book or converse with friends 4 minutes while coffee drips into glass.
  11. When dripping slows to a stop, remove lid and place upside on the table (so that it can serve as a saucer for the phin). Remove phin and set on lid.
  12. For black coffee. Enjoy hot OR pour over glass of crushed ice.
  13. For sweetened coffee: With a spoon, blend sweetened condensed milk into coffee. Enjoy hot OR pour over glass of cracked ice.
Lori Writer / Heavy Table

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

Vietnamese Yogurt (sữa chua, pronounced su-aw chu-ah, or da ua, pronounced yah u-ah)

Yogurt is an easy way of using up leftover sweetened condensed milk. In Vietnam, yogurt made with sweetened condensed milk is eaten as a dessert, often in two-ounce servings and with a teensy plastic spoon, the kind you might use to sample the ice cream at Izzy’s. It is sweet and rich; a little goes a long way. Even the six-ounce servings we made using an electric Euro Cuisine Yogurt Maker and skim milk were decadent enough to be considered a treat, rather than breakfast. Truong Thanh Grocery Store sells 12-packs of two-ounce plastic yogurt containers for $2. They also carry Vietnamese yogurt, frozen in a plastic bag in the freezer case next to the cash register, also for $2. You can use Truong Thanh’s yogurt as a starter, if you leave time for it to defrost, but we prefer to use six-ounce containers of plain yogurt, because then you use the yogurt container as your measuring cup (we like Cultural Revolution brand organic yogurt from Kalona, Iowa. It’s available at Whole Foods, Mississippi Market, Seward Co-op, and most other Minneapolis-St. Paul co-ops.)  If you don’t have an electric yogurt maker, you can make your yogurt using the water-bath method.

We haven’t found a way to freeze our skim yogurt without it crystallizing, but still like it best in two-ounce portions.

Vietnamese Yogurt
Makes about 36 ounces

Ingredients
12 oz of sweetened condensed milk (measured in yogurt cup)
24 oz of almost-boiling water (measured in yogurt cup — careful not to scald yourself)
Optional: juice of 1 to 2 limes, about 2 to 4 tbsp
6 to 12 oz of plain yogurt
12 oz skim milk (measured in yogurt cup)

More almost-boiling water if using water-bath method.

Directions

  1. Using a rubber spatula, scrape yogurt into large mixing bowl.
  2. Measure milk with yogurt container, then pour into mixing bowl.
  3. Whisk milk until yogurt until smooth.
  4. Into a second mixing bowl: Measure sweetened condensed milk in yogurt cup, then use a rubber spatula to scrape it into bowl.
  5. In a kettle, heat water almost to a boil. Measure hot water in yogurt cup (hold the yogurt cup by the edges so you don’t scald yourself), then pour into mixing bowl.
  6. Whisk water into sweetened condensed milk until well-blended.
  7. Whisk condensed milk-water mixture into yogurt milk mixture.
  8. If using, whisk in lime juice.
  9. Using a measuring cup with a spout, pour mixture into glass jars (baby jars, yogurt jars, etc.) or plastic containers (old yogurt containers, or the 2-oz Vietnamese yogurt containers) and fill to neck.

Using electric yogurt maker:

  1. Place in electric yogurt maker for 8 to 12 hours until yogurt is firm.
  2. Affix lids and place jars  in refrigerator to cool, at least 6 hours.
  3. Enjoy!

Using water-bath method:

  1. Into a large pot, pour hot near boiling water. You want about an inch of water in the bottom of the pot.
  2. Put yogurt jars in a hot water bath, take care not to splash hot water into jars.  Water level should be just above the yogurt line. Add more water, perhaps using a funnel, if needed.
  3. Cover pot with a towel.
  4. When water has cooled completely (after about 2 to 2½ hours), remove towel, heat pot 3-4 minutes, turn off burner, and cover pot with towel.
  5. After water has cooled completely again, yogurt should be firm.
  6. Affix lids and place jars in refrigerator to cool, at least 6 hours.
  7. Enjoy!

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

RESOURCES:

Restaurants that serve Vietnamese coffee with the phin filter:

Saigon Restaurant & Bakery
704 University Ave W
St. Paul, MN 55104
651.225.8751

Phở Tàu Bay
2837 Nicollet Ave S
Minneapolis, MN 55408
612.874.6030

Hien Deli
2624 Nicollet Ave S
Minneapolis, MN  55408
612.872.8280

To purchase Vietnamese yogurt or yogurt supplies:

Truong Thanh Great Wall Grocery
2520 Nicollet Ave S
Minneapolis, MN 55404
612.879.0561

To purchase Cultural Revolution yogurt:

Minneapolis-St. Paul co-ops

Euro Cuisine Electric Yogurt Maker

To purchase coffee, phin filter and Longevity sweetened condensed milk:

Truong Thanh Great Wall Grocery
2520 Nicollet Ave S
Minneapolis, MN 55404
612.879.0561

United Noodles Oriental Food
2015 E 24th St
Minneapolis, MN 55404
612.721.6677

Shuang Hur
654 University Ave W
St. Paul, MN 55104
651.292.1325

Recipes:

Andrea Nguyen’s Vietnamese yogurt

WhiteOnRiceCouples’s Vietnamese yogurt

Trung Nguyen Vietnamese Coffee Video

Vietnamese Coffee Online

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8 Comments

  1. Here’s how I make Vietnamese coffee: take a cup of coffee, add a lot of sweetened condensed milk. Done!

  2. Brown Cow yogurt is also very good. It’s found at almost all the co-ops. It’s not as thick as sour cream, but it has a similar flavor.

  3. I wanted to send my love to this blog simply because of the Cafe du Monde usage. New Orleans has a decent Vietnamese population and pairing the condensed milk with the rich flavor of Cafe du Monde is perfect!

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