What you need to know
Traditional cà phê trúng (Vietnamese egg coffee) is now trending in North America, but what is it made of?
In 1946, when Vietnam was plagued by war with France, a shortage of milk led Nguyen Van Giang, who was then working at the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel in Hanoi, to come up with a substitute for the condensed milk traditionally used when preparing coffee. His solution? Whipped egg yolks.
The creative improvisation caught on and became a revered local drink in its own right, eventually leading Van Giang to open his own shop, Giảng Cafe, which has since become a national attraction in the city.
Traditional cà phê trúng (Vietnamese egg coffee) is a Northern Vietnamese specialty made with robusta beans, whisked eggs, sugar, and condensed milk. As is the case with culturally defining culinary endeavors, it was only a matter of time until the drink made its way across oceans and continents, tickling palates and developing devotees among folks living outside Vietnam.
A note should be made about the most elemental form of Vietnamese coffee, which predates and is the basis of Van Giang’s glorious invention. The traditional java is of the dark roast kind — incredibly strong and bitter — with flavors counterbalanced by sweetened condensed milk. Served hot or cold, coffee in Vietnam was first introduced around 1857 during French colonization. Limited refrigeration capabilities, the use of cows solely as work animals, and scarcity of fresh milk led to the widespread use of condensed milk for storing dairy long term.
Today, the Southeast Asian country is the second largest producer of coffee in the world (Brazil is No. 1) and the first when only taking into account the robusta variety (from the Coffea canephora plant, boasting high bitterness and low acidity levels). Currently, most Vietnamese coffee in North America is actually made with Café du Monde’s coffee and chicory beans — produced in New Orleans — a departure from the robusta beans still used in Hanoi and its surrounding areas.
And yet, while standard Vietnamese coffee and cuisine can be found throughout Western countries relatively easily, egg coffee is not prevalent. In New York City, for example, aficionados virtually have a single option: Hanoi Soup Shop on St. Marks Place in Manhattan’s East Village neighborhood.
“It absolutely could be a dessert,” says Sara Leveen, co-owner of Hanoi Soup Shop and Hanoi House, of cà phê trúng, whose flavor many describe as tiramisu-like. “It is what you make of it: What did you have before? What are you craving? The custard itself tastes like it could very easily be a dessert,” Leveen explains. “It’s sweet, but then you mix in all that dark black coffee, and it is strong.”
Following a trip around the world that included stops in Vietnam, where they developed a taste for the local culinary offerings, Leveen and her now-fiancé Ben Lowell opened Hanoi House, a Vietnamese eatery, back in 2017. “There were just some dishes from Hanoi that we would find bastardized versions of in places in Chinatown,” she recalls. That is likely the result of the history of migration to the United States: As most Vietnamese immigrants hail from the southern part of Vietnam, they brought along regional specialties. Although now widespread in Vietnam, cà phê trúng is undoubtedly a northern creation.
Only serving dinner initially, the business partners eventually added brunch service once a week, offering a menu that included the egg concoction. “It was three egg yolks for one order of coffee, whipped to order, with a drizzle of honey and condensed milk,” Leveen says. Needing to heat the milk with hot coffee as the eggs were whisked (so that, once they hit the coffee, they’d stay warm but not get shocked), each drink would take four minutes to prepare. “It was a pain in the ass, but people loved it,” she says.
© 2019 Time Inc. All rights reserved. Republished from fortune.com and published with permission of Time Inc. Reproduction in any manner in any language in whole or in part without prior written permission is prohibited.
TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)
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