A most unusual way to brew cofffee

An image of coffee slowly dripping through a metal filter into a cup perfectly captures Saigon and its unhurried way of life. However, before the arrival of these iconic metal filters, coffee sold by street vendors was made an entirely different and unusual way. Finely milled coffee powder was brewed in earthen pots (same ones Chinese traditional herbalists used to brew medicine) on top of wooden cookers for five to ten minutes. When ready to serve, the thick liquid is filtered through nets made of cloth similar to thick stockings or boot socks – giving this style of coffee, aptly named, stocking coffee (ca phe tat, ca phe vo, or ca phe vot in Vietnamese). According to devoted drinkers, the texture is smoother, the flavour richer and the fragrant lasts longer.

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No one can pinpoint where this method originated from, just that it was first popularized by street cafes and restaurants in Saigon’s old Chinese quarter sometime in the 1950s. These days, only a handful of places still serve stocking coffee in Saigon: the nameless cafe at 330/2 Phan Dinh Phung in Phu Nhuan District and a cafe in alley 313 Tan Phuoc in District 11. Each café is more than half a century old and has passed through several generations.

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The tiny 330/2 café has never once closed its door in 60 years, not even for Tet. Interestingly the fire, which never goes out, is in a US bomb casing. Dang Tran Con and his wife Pham Ngoc Tuyet manage the shop from morning to late afternoon. Their children, fourth generation stocking coffee brewers, man the counter from late afternoon through the night and into the next morning. The café’s customers vary, ranging from teenagers to nostalgic retirees seeking a taste of 1950s Saigon.

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“We actually have changed our way of serving a little to keep the young people from being too bewildered,” says 64-year-old Mr. Con. “Back in my grandfather’s generation, we serve coffee in porcelain soup plates so that the customers can dip pieces of Youtiao (fried Chinese breadstick) in the coffee and have them for breakfast. When you drink it, you sip the same way you would soup, just like how the French used to do it. Back in those days, that’s a meal and for some people it was considered the vogue way to enjoy coffee in Saigon then. If you didn’t drink coffee from soup plates and eat Youtiao dipped in coffee, people would call you a boorish country bumpkin. But nobody does it that way anymore.”

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IMAGES BY NEIL FEATHERSTONE