Vietnamese coffee has a slightly odd taste. Is it true that it’s roasted in fish sauce?

This is unfortunately not only true, it’s considered de rigueur within the Vietnamese coffee industry, and it has been for some time.

Back in the old days when locally-based Chinese traders started to realize that this new ‘coffee’ thing that the French were growing on their plantations was something not unlike tea and could potentially catch on, they felt that it needed a bit of refinement to give it a more ‘East-Asian kick’. This involved pan-roasting the beans with a whole range of ingredients, amongst which fish sauce was thought to add a certain boldness. Chinese ingenuity – or at least, whatever it is that causes the inscrutable Asian mind to think that fish and coffee are a pretty neat combination – also introduced chicken fat (for glossier beans and because coffee that tastes like chicken has to be awesome), alcohol (for fortification – actually, maybe this is okay), and burned-to-a-crisp corn
in order to enhance the color, perhaps hoping that the fish and chicken would mask the “bitter charcoal” element that it inevitably introduced. Maybe it does.

It’s probably the latter amongst these ingredients that’s mostly to blame for that subtle, weird intensity you get from a Vietnamese roast. Just this March, Tuoi Tre carried an outrageous statement by the Deputy General Director of Vinacafe Bien Hoa, Nguyen Thanh Tung, claiming that 90 percents of all coffee products sold in Vietnam aren’t made of coffee at all, but rather chemical agents mixed in with soy and charred corn to produce a jet-black, coffee-flavored water that many producers claim is actually preferred by Vietnamese drinkers.

As bold as such a statement may be, he may well be right. Although Vietnam exports more coffee than anywhere else on the planet, what’s left for the domestic market is actually not cheap. Enthusiastic local coffee producers, already well-accustomed to adding a little bit of this and that into the roaster, seem to have realized that there’s virtually no limit to the  quantity of cheap, burned corn that can be added to the bushel – so much so that there’s little need for the humble coffee bean to show up at all.

Last year, Thanh Nien news exposed Thong Phat coffee company forproducing little more than a “black mixture of unknown chemicals” in which not a single granule of coffee was  involved. Many other local coffee producers quite candidly acknowledged this rarity of the genuine article in their product, justifying their manufacturing process by claiming that Vietnamese people are unused to the caffeine content, and would prefer to pay less cash for a sticky, black corn drink than shell out top dollar for a true arabica roast.

For those less inclined towards a wash of chemistry and soot for their morning cuppa, it’s good practice to visually verify the product at the point of purchase. Buy actual coffee beans, and grind them yourself. Of course, this won’t take away the eau de la fish sauce – the only foolproof way to avoid that is to purchase an imported blend.

Share this story, choose your platform!

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on tumblr
Share on google
Share on linkedin
Share on reddit
Share on vk
Share on email
About the author:

Leave a Comment

Pills, Teas and Songs

Debby Nguyen’s new book “Pills, Teas, and Songs” is a collection of 11 stories on medicine practices across different cultures and countries, for example, traditional Chinese medicine, traditional Vietnamese medicine (inspired by her own family and heritage), Ayahuasca, indigenous healing practices of the Lakota people, Black midwifery in the US, and more. The book is

Read More »

CH House

The house is designed for three family generations who wanted to create a harmonious space in the hectic city (Hanoi) in order to enhance traditional  family life. The site of the house is a typical plot for long and narrow local tube houses; with CH house the dimensions are –  4,2 m  wide by 35

Read More »

Shared Knowledge

The spirit of connectedness and increased knowledge for increased knowledge sharing that animates UpLearn “Never let a good crisis go to waste,” goes the now-famous quote by former Obama advisor Rahm Emanuel. The quote seems tailored to this moment, this very one where “crisis” seems to be in abundance. The rest of it—well, where might

Read More »

Electric Youth

Oi speaks to Celine Ventalon about Miha Bodytec and EMS training in Saigon What is Electric Muscle Stimulator (EMS)?Electrical Muscle Stimulation (EMS) training is a full-body workout that originally comes from a physiotherapy and combines a ‘free will contraction’ through an exercise and an external stimulus from an EMS device. This high-intense whole-body workout uses

Read More »

Nước Mắm

Dedicated to my tenacious bà ngoại (grandma) Text by Emili N. Lok I am a 13-year-old Vietnamese-American living in NYC. I’m also a boba lover, a Korean drama watcher, and a self-proclaimed spice food maniac. I’m currently a 7th grade student and wrote this story to feel more connected to the Vietnamese side of my

Read More »

A Tale of Two Traditions

The origin and evolution of Vietnamese traditional medicine The current historical (and hysterical?) moment has brought into sharp focus Vietnam’s northern neighbor, specifically a practice that feels almost occultish: the eating of exotic animals. It’s a custom that deserves context: Vietnam’s northern neighbor consumes animals reportedly for their healing or medicinal properties. Similarly, the Fito

Read More »