Header image courtesy of @7chor.ocha (via Instagram)
Almost a third of the world’s supply of coffee is produced in Asia, with a great amount being concentrated in the Southeastern front. It comes as no surprise seeing that the name of the Indonesian region Java has been repurposed into the general lingo as another moniker for good coffee, and that Vietnam is currently the world’s second-largest exporter of coffee beans. That being said, there are a plethora of ways in which this drink is enjoyed, with many countries having its own traditional rituals in its preparation.
Let us take you on a journey through the most unique flavours around Southeast Asia, bringing unconventional dimensions to your humble cup of joe.
Invented by a legendary bartender My Ngyuen, who worked at the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi at the time, this concoction was created in Hanoi during the 1940s as a result of a milk shortage, whereby the beaten eggs were used as a replacement for cappuccino-style foamed milk.
Even though the idea of raw egg in your coffee may send your stomach churning, this star ingredient is actually very helpful in aiding your digestion. In fact, the added protein in your daily caffeination leads to several health benefits. Whilst the nutrition from the egg helps to repair muscles, the coffee helps to boost your metabolism, hence its growing popularity as a delicious booster before training sessions.
Since Vietnamese coffee is traditionally prepared with a phin (Vietnamese pour-over drip filter), it is much richer and more concentrated, retaining 90 percent of its original essence. That being said, this makes for a stronger caffeine spike and a sharp bitterness that novice coffee drinkers may find jarring. Acting as an emulsifier, the egg holds together all the flavours with its viscous consistency. Likened to tiramisu, the thick frothiness of the egg melds with the deep bitters of the Vietnamese Robusta beans, in addition to the of sweetness from condensed milk. All these flavours fold into each other to create a mouthfeel akin to a creamy dessert.
Its roots trace back to the Thai-Chinese community’s penchant for making the most out of scant supplies during WWI, with “o” and “liang” literally translating to “black” and cold”, respectively, in the Teochew dialect. The history of oliang goes as such—people didn’t want to give up their much-needed caffeine-induced energy spurt, but coffee was expensive at the time. A compromise was needed, so inexpensive grains were added to the beans during the roasting phase in order to make for more coffee using fewer materials, though the precise mixture varied according to what was available.
Nowadays, oliang is drank for both its taste and its value for money. Today’s roasts usually include soybean, sesame, brown rice, sugar, salt, tamarind seeds, corn, or sometimes even butter. The ratio of Robusta beans to other grains can vary greatly, with coffee taking up anywhere from 20 percent to 80 percent of the compounded mixture. The drink is brewed by being run through a tung tdom kaffee, a coffee-making filter consisting of a cotton cloth bag attached to a metal ring and handle, placed over a drum-like metal pot.
Oliang has a distinct aroma that subtly features the intensities of the various grains added. Since it is typically over-extracted, that intense bitterness is countered with heaping spoons of condensed milk, evaporated milk, and brown sugar. Typically poured over big blocks of smooth ice in a glass, or over an avalanche of crushed ice into the bunched cavity of a plastic bag, this Thai drink is a refreshing hit for even the stickiest of summer days. Enjoy it plain, or ‘yok loh’ (taken literally to mean “popping wheelies”) style with fresh milk.
A fixture of Malaysian and Singaporean heritage, kopi coffee is typically served at kopi tiams—the equivalent of coffee shops in the region. Much more than a just a replica of the typical café, kopi tiams are the epicentre of community culture, often functioning as a second home for locals. Having been established since the early 1800s, these refreshment shacks were founded by the Malaysian-Chinese and Singaporean-Chinese residents who wanted to capitalize on the popular Western-imported trend of coffee drinking. These shops are also where well-known afternoon tea items like kaya toast and teh tarik (pulled tea) also originate from.
Having to rely on materials and equipment accessible locally, the changes to production and usage of regionally specific beans caused kopi to develop its distinct flavour that sets it apart from European variants. Robusta beans are commonly the specimen of choice, with Malaysian baristas mixing in hints of Liberica beans—a variety first introduced to Asian soil in the late 19th century during a rust disease outbreak amongst Robusta crops. The beans are roasted in a wok, coated with butter or lard with sugar to give a delectable caramelized fragrance.
Kopi Tarik, in particular, is a version of kopi created by pulling the coffee back and forth between two metal mugs before serving. Other choices include Kopi C, for which ‘C’ stands for the Carnation brand condensed milk that is a beloved addition to coffee drinkers in the two nations, or Kopi O which is plainly the coffee served black and simple. These are just the tip of the iceberg, as there are 12 ways to serve this drink!
Hailing from the Malaysian city of Ipoh, this aromatic drink is not to be confused with “white coffee” that simply refers to regular blends of coffee mixed with milk or creamer. Though it does contain condensed milk, lending to the pearly tones it (sort of) derives its name from, There is much debate surrounding the specific kopi tiam responsible for such a creation—the two main contenders being Sin Yoong Long Coffee Shop and Nam Heong White Coffee, both situated in the Ipoh Old Town.
The ‘white’ describes more than just the palette of the finished product—it also refers to the light roast of the beans used. Similar to kopi, the beans are roasted in margarine (hold the sugar!) to a comparatively milder degree, then ground for brewing. This method of roasting has been accredited to Hainanese-Chinese immigrants to Malaysia, showing that the popularity of kopi tiams throughout the several Southeast Asian nations could have been spread by the Chinese diaspora.
Enjoyed with condensed milk that is mixed in to form a slight milky froth on the surface, ipoh coffee embodies flavours that are on the lighter side, complimenting those who prefer a sweet and milky taste.
Costing up to USD 700 per kilogramme, Kopi Luwak is the most expensive coffee in the world. To add to the shock factor, the reason behind its jaw-dropping price may lead many to wrinkle up their noses in disgust—the partially digested beans are collected from civet faeces—cat-like, forest-dwelling creatures native to the region.
This practise is rooted in the Dutch colonial ban on native farmers from reaping their own coffee crops for personal consumption. As the now mythologized story goes, Sumatran and Javanese farmers took notice of the flecks of coffee beans set in wild civet droppings and became compelled to comb through these nuggets in the hopes of striking gold. Once word got out, the Dutch seized the product for themselves, exporting this gourmet coffee at high prices for great riches in return. As demand began to rise, producers had trouble sustaining the same level of output, as it required a massive effort to even find the beans in the wild, then having to clean, process, and prep them.
Following the international popularization of Kopi Lewak in the 1990s, many other assortments of animal-poop coffee had hit the scene, though none achieved the same level of popularity—and drinkability—as civet coffee. The half-processed coffee cherry beans undergo a wet hull treatment before roasting, achieving a robustly nutty and woody flavour without the bitterness of a typical dark roast, alongside hints of caramel. To sample the multiplicities of the flavour unique to Kopi Lewak, it is best that you enjoy the brew black without any additions.
A cup of coffee that comes with a show, Kopi Joss is a street-side favourite native to the city of Yokyakarta. It is prepared at roadside angkringan (roadside vendors using pushcarts), where a block of hot charcoal is warmed up in a mini in-built stove, then plunged into a cup of fresh black coffee. The onomatopoetic “joss” is meant to depict the sound that occurs during the moment of contact between the two main ingredients.
Famed for its supposed counteractivity against acid reflux, the coffee can be consumed on an empty stomach, making it a top choice for busy folks who are seeking a shortcut to heightened alertness without the trade-off of that bilious feeling in the pit of their stomachs. The charcoal is said to have anti-acidic properties, with it being hailed as a toxin-removing superfood in recent years. While the medicinal backing behind these factors is still muddy, the deliciousness and novelty of the concoction is good enough a reason to give it a try.
Neutralizing the tinge of sourness that comes from sun-soaked beans, the burned wood creates a subtle yet appealing muskiness that comes out as an aftertaste. No need to worry if it will overpower the original essence of the coffee, as the woodiness is more of an enhancer than a complete transformation. Those who are potentially uncomfortable with small flecks of coffee grounds or sandy bits that remain from the charcoal should proceed with caution.