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Sipping egg coffee is a bit like inhaling sponge cake

Egg coffee, which holds iconic status in Hanoi, tastes much better than it sounds

A cup of egg coffee locally known as ca phetrung in Vietnamese. (iStockphoto)
A cup of egg coffee locally known as ca phetrung in Vietnamese. (iStockphoto)

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Hanoi’s Nguyen Huu Huan street, near the scenic Hoan Kiem lake, is packed with eateries and cafés in buildings sitting cheek by jowl. Almost halfway down the street, it is quite easy to miss and walk past the narrow entrance of Café Giang. A simple board hanging above the entrance just says “egg coffee” and “since 1946”. The doorway leads to a tiny passage and a small open space with a staircase. The overpowering smell of sweetness, which stops just short of being cloying, comes from a steady stream of trays of cups borne by the staff, filled with a creamy, frothy, pale yellow concoction that the café is famous for—egg coffee, ca phetrung in Vietnamese.

The first time I heard of egg coffee was in Bengaluru, from a friend fresh from a visit to Hanoi. The reaction, predictably, was one of mild disgust. Especially for a south Indian filter-coffee purist. “Keep an open mind,” the friend said before my trip.

I try to shake off my reservations as I climb the narrow staircase. My companions and I snag a table in a corner and place our orders. While we wait, I discover the coffee’s origin fits the clichéd adage “necessity is the mother of invention”. Our Vietnamese guide, Chung, says that when the country was convulsed by shortages, of fresh milk among other items, during World War II, a quick-thinking bartender/barista, Nguyen Van Giang, at the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel (a fabled hotel built in 1901, complete with bunker, and still in operation) hit upon the idea of substituting milk with whisked eggs. The drink was such a success, with both locals and foreigners, that it launched his career. He opened an outlet in 1946 to serve the beverage, a legacy continued by the family. The third generation works in the kitchen while Giang’s son, Nguyen Van Dao, is usually perched on a stool in a little nook connecting the levels, overseeing everything.

Service is efficient: The coffees arrive within a few minutes. At first glance they don’t seem very different from the regular latte or cappuccino, just a bit more frothy. Since we have ordered the hot version, the cup is served in a shallow dish filled with hot water, and a spoon to scoop out the froth. It is light and airy, a bit like inhaling sponge cake. My first tentative sip actually surprises me: It is sweeter than I prefer but the taste of the coffee comes through. It certainly tastes different, somewhat like coffee with milk substitutes that doesn’t really hit the mark.

It feels, in fact, more like a liquid dessert with coffee flavour. I recall it being likened to Kinder Joy, crème eggs, even described as liquid tiramisu. I can see why. In effect, that’s what it is: coffee (espresso made usually with robusta), condensed milk, egg, even butter and a few other things that the brand won’t reveal.

For good reason. Not just in Hanoi but as far south as Ho Chi Minh City, Café Giang’s success has led to the mushrooming of scores of outlets serving egg coffee. But Giang is the original and has kept innovating. There are several variations, such as with cocoa/chocolate, mung bean, matcha, Oreo biscuits, with spices such as cinnamon, with nuts like almond, and even with other beverages like Coke, beer and rum. And all of them, except Coke and beer, have both hot and cold versions. It is understandable why people say it can get addictive.

The place is full—entire families with toddlers, middle-aged couples, youngsters holding up cups and pouting for selfies. The tables are loaded with the various versions, though the classic still holds sway. As I drain the last drop, I am struck by the fact that it is decadent, a far cry from the grim context of its origins. But then again, the world over, examples abound of how ingenuity and innovation under trying circumstances have led to some of the best kind of food. Egg coffee is probably one of the best of them.

Anita Rao Kashi is a Bengaluru-based journalist and travel writer.

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