IMBIBE: Vietnam by the Glass
Sipping on egg coffee, cobra wine, salted limeade and sea horse whiskey.
JACKSON HOLE, WY – When I was in grad school in New York City, one of my colleagues who hailed from Vietnam introduced me to an exotic world (to me, anyway) of flavors and aromas. That included beverages I’d never encountered—both alcoholic and non-alcoholic. Some were enjoyed at innocent mom-and-pop cafes, others in unmarked and sketchy after-hours haunts where gambling, imbibing and other activities occurred. I was working on a Ph.D. in anthropology, so I chalked my forays up to “research.”
I’m not a coffee drinker. I like to say it’s one of the few vices—the other being smoking—that I never acquired. However, if I were to drink coffee, it’s Vietnamese coffee I’d drink. Specifically, what’s known as Hanoi egg coffee, or cà phê trúng. According to coffee historians, egg coffee was created by Nguyen Giang—a bartender at the posh Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel in the late 1940s, when Vietnam was still under French colonial rule. It’s said that egg coffee was a creation born of necessity, at a time when condensed milk was hard to come by. Egg yolk is whisked together with sugar, milk and Robusta coffee, and the cup of coffee is placed into a bowl of hot water to help retain its heat (although egg coffee can also be served cold). Frothy egg, milk, sweet sugar and bitter coffee flavors make for somewhat of a meal of a drink, but a delicious one.
Fellow foodie Amanda Rock raves about salted lime limeade with plum. It begins with salted, pickled limes called chanh muôi, wherein Key limes—lemons are sometimes also used—and rock salt are packed into glass canisters and left in the sun to pickle. To make the limeade drink, pickled lime is muddled in a glass, then sugar, carbonated water or soda and (sometimes) preserved plum is added.
At the other end of the alcohol spectrum from alcohol-free egg coffee and limeade drinks is Vietnam’s infamous rice wine, which weighs in at around 30 percent alcohol; keep in mind that most non-sparkling wine here runs around 11 to 15 percent. It’s a potent, fiery and traditionally macho beverage that tends to be consumed in drinking sessions with barbecued or grilled meats and seafood and/or spicy squid jerky.
Not exotic enough for you? If you tend to eschew the plum wine offered in many Asian restaurants, and are in the market for something a little more robust and hearty, how about cobra wine? Throughout China, Vietnam and Southeast Asia, venomous snakes are steeped in grain alcohol or rice wine, and the result is said to contain medicinal qualities. Good news though: The snake venom is denatured by the ethanol in the wine, so you won’t die, though you might wish you had.
Beer is the favored alcoholic drink in Vietnam, but Vietnamese brews are hard to find here. Most of the popular beers like 333, Saigon Lager, Castel and Saigon Export tend to be a bit thin and watery. That’s probably a good thing, given that there is no minimum drinking age in Vietnam. Use that beer to wash down a shot of sea horse whiskey. It’s 37 percent ABV and yes, is infused with farm-raised sea horse, and is reputed to have aphrodisiacal effects. Hey who wouldn’t be frisky after drinking sea horse? PJH