My Rouses Everyday, May/June 2017
How a Louisiana version of coffee and chicory made its way onto Vietnamese menus all over the world is a great example of how immigrants absorb — and influence — local food and customs.
Louisiana was first claimed by France in 1682, and though the French drank coffee their American counterparts preferred tea. That was true until the early 1770s, when the British levied outrageous taxes on tea imports and Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty threw 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor. Drinking coffee suddenly became a patriotic duty.
By 1860 Louisiana belonged to the United States. New Orleans was one of its largest cities and took the title of the nation’s second-largest importer of coffee in the country. Coffee had become a large part of the city’s culture but a Union naval blockade in the American Civil War cut off the port of New Orleans and the area’s coffee supply quickly ran short.
The French were familiar with coffee shortages, having endured their own during Napoleon’s Continental Blockade, and quickly passed along the use of chicory — a plant native to France — in coffee to New Orleans.
A New Home on the Gulf Coast
More than 130,000 South Vietnamese refugees arrived in America in 1975 after the Fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War. About 15 percent — 20,000 people — found a new home on the Gulf Coast, many with help from Catholic Charities and area churches. Many Vietnamese families made their way to fishing communities like Bayou La Batre, Alabama, Empire and Grand Isle, Louisiana, and suburban areas of New Orleans, including Gretna and Avondale on the West Bank and New Orleans East. They quickly became entrenched in their new communities.
Coffee was first introduced to Vietnam by French colonists in the 1880s. Today Vietnam is the world’s largest grower and exporter of robusta coffee beans. Vietnamese robusta coffee is dark and intense, with a bitter edge due to its higher caffeine content.
Chicory coffee has a similar flavor profile, and brands like Café Du Monde, which is a mixture of chicory, robusta and sweeter Arabica beans, offered the new immigrants a taste of home. Because sourcing authentic Vietnamese coffee was so difficult, chicory coffee quickly became the go-to replacement, then the coffee of choice. Today Vietnamese restaurants in America and all over the world get their ground coffee from local companies like Café Du Monde.
Vietnamese coffee is drunk cold or hot and sweetened with condensed milk — a practice that dates back to the French colonists. Because milk was scarce at the time, the colonists sweetened their robusta coffee with the more readily available canned condensed milk.
At Tan Dinh in Gretna, one of the New Orleans West Bank’s most popular Vietnamese restaurants, owner Ngat “Maria” Vu uses a mixture of Café Du Monde and Trung Nguyen, a Vietnamese robusta grind. She prepares our coffee tableside. The grinds are filtered slowly through a single-serve, stainless-steel Vietnamese coffee filter into a cup containing condensed milk. This slow press process, which is similar to that of a French press, extracts sugar from the chicory and flavor from the coffee. The brew is stirred gently, then poured over ice while still hot for a classic café sua da, or “coffee, milk, ice.”
This ritual is repeated at Dong Phuong in New Orleans East, where a meal of cha gio (egg rolls) and grilled pork Bánh Mì (a Vietnamese po-boy) is followed by hot or cold French-dripped chicory coffee sweetened with condensed milk. The ca phe sua is equally popular at Pho Tau Bay, a favorite of chefs Emeril Lagasse and John Besh. The Takacs, owners of the popular venue, recently relocated their restaurant from the Westbank Expressway in Gretna to Tulane Avenue in New Orleans.
There are exceptions to every rule, of course, and one is Dang’s in Baton Rouge, which is located in the Florida Boulevard strip mall anchored by Vinh Phat Oriental Market. There’s no better cure for the rainy day blues — or just a case of the Mondays — than a steaming bowl of pho, and the pho at Dang’s is some of the best in Baton Rouge. It’s complex and doesn’t need much hoisin sauce to bring out its rich flavor. Dang’s uses a dark-roasted Vietnamese brand of coffee rather than the more typical Louisiana coffee and chicory. But like all Vietnamese blends, their hot and iced coffees are deliciously sweet from the condensed milk.
In its long and storied culinary history, the Gulf Coast has been blessed with offerings from a variety of cultures. It’s really not surprising that some — like the Vietnamese and New Orleans coffee styles — have overlapped to create even more tempting delights for our palates, and palates around the world.
New Orleans born coffee chain PJ’s opened locations in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 2016.