Foodie bloggers and gourmets go wild over the fresh flavours of Indochinese cuisine – but we tend to hear less talk about Southeast Asian beverages. You might hear a mention of the cheap, crisp beers of Thailand (honourable mention: Singha Beer) or an approving appraisal of Teh Tarik, the sweet steamed milk tea which is the national drink of Malaysia and is also served across Singapore; but there are many more Indochinese drinks worth mentioning.
The drinks of Southeast Asia are every bit as varied, intriguing and interesting as the region’s food – from sweet iced Vietnamese coffee, which you may have already sampled in Vietnamese restaurants in Angel or some of London’s more culturally exploratory coffee shops, to the Singapore Sling, which you’ve most likely enjoyed in London’s finer cocktail establishments, the region has a wealth of tasty beverages to offer. Here’s our guide to some of the region’s most exciting drinks – from the delicious and the unusual, to the plain strange. And we’ll also be showing you how to make some of our favourite Indochinese beverages at home – so read on!
You might think the UK is coffee-crazy, but our smattering of independent coffee shops and proliferation of Starbucks don’t come close to the Indochinese obsession with the drink! Some say the obsession with the caffeinated beverage was inspired by the tea-and-coffee drinking of colonialists – for example, in Vietnam, the passion for sweet, strong coffee with condensed milk is believed to have originated from French occupiers, who couldn’t get hold of fresh milk. But Ca Phe, or Ca Phe Sua Da (which literally translates to coffee, milk, ice has its own distinctive, inimitable flavour.
Made with a French drip filter and served with sweetened, condensed milk, Vietnamese coffee has branched out into other variations, which might sound strange to Western ears – for example, Sua Chua Ca Phe sees thick, creamy yogurt paired with coffee and served with various toppings including fresh fruit or fermented rice, and Ca Phe Trung is a dessert-like concoction of whipped egg yolk, condensed milk and dark coffee. They may sound strange, and it might take a few years for them to show up on the menu of your favourite Vietnamese restaurants in Angel, but trust me – the combination of creamy egg yolk or yoghurt with coffee is surprisingly moreish. And you’ve probably heard of Cà Phê Chồn, or weasel coffee – made from part-digested coffee cherries which have been defecated out by Asian Palm Civets (a type of weasel), it might be a little out of your tourist budget, these days – the coffee sells for as much as $700 USD a kilo!
Singapore is another Southeast Asian country with a noteworthy coffee scene – here, coffee is an integral part of any business or social meeting and Kopi Tiams abound across both Singapore and Malaysia. These traditional coffee shops prepare their coffee by dry-frying beans in a wok with corn kernels and butter, then straining them while dousing the beans in hot water – the coffee collects in a waiting glass below, which will already contain sweetened or condensed milk, depending on your order. There are hundreds of ways to customise your order – and these outlets also often serve Teh Tarik, the sweet condensed milk tea, and Milo, a malty chocolate drink which is extremely popular throughout the region.
If you’re looking to liven up your breakfast or afternoon with an Indochinese-style beverage, try this simple recipe for Vietnamese Iced Coffee – the ice is an extra-refreshing way to kick your brain in gear in the morning!
French Roast Medium Coarse Ground Coffee
Sweetened Condensed Milk
Method: Brew the coffee as preferred, using two spoonful’s per cup. For authenticity, you might want to purchase a Vietnamese coffee press, but any method will suffice! Then, add two spoonsful of sweetened condensed milk into each coffee cup, and the coffee and stir until the milk is dissolved. Serve with a tall glass filled with at least four ice-cubes and a long spoon – the coffee should be poured into the tall glass and given another good stir, chilling the coffee immediately. Enjoy!
Tea and coffee aren’t the only drinks that Indochina does well – bubble tea, salty lemonade and sugar cane juice are all delicious specialties of the region. Originating from Taiwan, bubble tea (also known as pearl milk tea, boba juice or boba) spread in popularity through Southeast Asia during the 1990s – consisting of a tea base, which is shaken with milk or juice then enhanced with chewy tapioca balls. It’s available in just about every flavour combination under the sun, and is just starting to gain popularity in Britain.
Salty lemonade, on the other hand, is a Vietnamese classic – made with Chanh Muối (Vietnamese lemons preserved in salt), it’s used to treat everything from the common cold to nausea, but is also a refreshing summertime drink made with a Chanh Muối wedge, sugar and soda or still water. Sugar cane juice is another Vietnamese delicacy – often balanced with kumquat juice to temper the sweetness, it’s widely available at street stalls, and is often sold in small plastic bags filled with ice, which are sealed around a straw using an elastic band.
The Singapore Sling (recipe below) is probably one of Southeast Asia’s most famous and delicious cocktails – but not everything that you can find served up in Indochinese bars will appeal as much. We’ve written before about snake and scorpion wine – but what about Vietnamese three lizard liquor? In the Vietnamese villages which make it, geckos are believed to have a powerful energy, and drinking the liquor (which is made with alcohol and as many dead geckos as can be stuffed in a bottle) will ward off evil spirits – which is always handy if you’re planning on getting drunk. Or if you’re by the banks of the Mekong River, why not pick up a bottle of Meekong River Eel Wine – made with small eels from river, ginseng roots and herbs, it certainly packs a mighty punch. But for those of you who are a little bit less adventurous with your drinking habits, here’s how to make the perfect Singapore Sling – no lizards required!
1 shot of gin (30 ml)
15 ml of cherry heering liqueur
7.5 ml Dom Benedictine
7.5 ml Cointreau
120 ml pineapple juice
15 ml lime juice
10 ml grenadine
Dash Angostura Bitters
Pineapple slice, to garnish
Method: Simply shake all ingredients (except the garnishes!) in a cocktail shaker with ice, strain into an ice-filled high tumbler, garnish with the pineapple slice and cocktail cherry and sit back and imagine you’re at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, where Mr. Ngiam Tong Boon invented the iconic recipe, sometime around 1915.
We hope you’ve enjoyed learning about the sometimes strange and often delicious drinks of Indochina – now, next time you’re at one of your favourite Vietnamese restaurants, you’ll know to insist on an authentic beverage to accompany your dishes! And if you’re looking for expertly-prepared, authentic Southeast Asian food and drinks which are cooked fresh on the premises, why not head to your local Banana Tree – we’ve eight locations across the UK and we’ll be delighted to whip you up an authentic feast!