We woke up early on the morning of our sixth day in Saigon for our 9.00 a.m. coffee class at The Yellow Chair. No pick-up was included in the package, we’d have to take a ride in the morning rush hour, so, if traffic was bad or in case we got lost going to the venue, we gave ourselves enough leeway.
Alex went down to buy banh mi for breakfast while I made coffee. We had a leisurely morning meal, showered, booked a Grab ride and off we went.
Why a coffee class in Vietnam?
Most people would “get” why Alex and I went to a cooking class in Vietnam but why a coffee class? Two reasons.
First, we love cà phê đá (the famous Vietnamese iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk) and we wanted to learn how to make it properly.
Second, Vietnam is one of the largest producers of coffee and Vietnamese coffee beans are famous. Why not acquaint ourselves with Vietnamese coffee?
A short story about coffee and how it came to Vietnam
Has coffee been grown in Vietnam for a long time?
Not that long.
A priest introduced coffee to Vietnam in 1857 in the form of a single arabica tree planted in the garden of a small church in the Vietnamese highlands. Ironic, really, considering that there was a time when the Catholic Church referred to coffee as “Satan’s drink.”
It’s true. Drinking wine was associated with Jesus while coffee was a drink popular in the Arab world.
The first documentation of coffee appeared in the 11th century. At the time, the plant was called bunn and the drink made from its beans was buncham. Even then, it was already known as a stimulant.
While most authors agree that coffee was first drank in Ethiopia, it was in Yemen where it began to be cultivated — for religious purposes. Coffee was drank in Sufi monasteries for stimulation during prayer.
From Yemen, coffee spread to the Arab countries where drinking wine was banned. By the mid-1500’s, the Arab world was completely enamored of the stimulating effects of coffee that coffee houses opened in Cairo, Syria, Aleppo and Istanbul.
So, you have Christians drinking wine while the Muslims were drinking coffee for the same reason — to experience altered states. In the Arab world, not everyone was happy with the coffee craze as some likened the effects on consuming alcohol. During the rule of Sultan Murad IV in the Ottoman Empire, drinking coffee was a capital offense.
As coffee drinking spread across Europe, Catholic priests were up in arms. Citing Coffee: The Revolutionary Drink for Pleasure and Health, Grandmotherafrica.com observes:
“The logic was convoluted. As the book explains, these Christian priests in Europe believed that ‘Muslims worshiped the devil and that the devil forbade his followers from drinking wine, as that drink was reserved for those who followed Jesus. So the devil provided coffee, instead.'”
The docuseries, Metropolis (on Netflix), claims:
“Drinking Satan’s drink became such a controversy Pope Clement VIII had to intervene. His infallible palate would decide coffee’s fate once and for all. According to legend, he declared, ‘This devil’s drink is delicious. We should cheat the devil by baptizing it.’ With his blessing, coffee quickly spread throughout Europe and eventually the world.”
So, I just found it both amusing and ironic that it was a priest that brought coffee to Vietnam where its cultivation thrived to become one of the country’s most significant agricultural products and exports.
The Yellow Chair
We arrived at The Yellow Chair much too early. The staff was cleaning the place at a little after 8.00 so we were ushered to comfortable seats and there was coffee to enjoy while waiting.
It was a lovely wait, truth be told, because the place is beautiful. The paintings, the furniture, the high ceiling… The total ambience was luxurious but not intimidating. In fact, I felt totally relaxed. Unhurried. Calm.
I walked around taking photos. I was curious if the set-up included the upper floors, so, I asked. Yes, we could go up, we were told.
It was just as beautiful upstairs as it was downstairs.
It felt like stepping into the past. Everything felt so serene. Almost bucolic. It was easy to forget that just a few steps out into the street were the crowds and never-ending flow of motorbikes that were everywhere in Saigon.
The coffee class
Finally, it was time for class. There were just Alex and myself to learn about coffee that morning. We felt pampered.
We were handed “cupping forms” to document our description of five varieties of beans.
First, we smelled the beans in their dry state.
Next, hot water was poured over the beans, we smelled them again and documented our observations.
As it turned out, Alex could identify the superior beans just by smelling. I failed.
The bottom line? High grade coffee smells more herby than nutty. If the beans smell chocolate-y, they’re more likely to be soybeans to which flavorings have been added.
Making cà phê đá, Vietnamese iced coffee
Making a good cup of coffee is not a lot different from making a good cup of tea. The proportion between water and coffee should be correct. The temperature of the water must be lower than its boiling point (after the water boils, count 40 seconds before using and the temperature should be just about right). The filter and the cup must be warmed before the ground coffee is added. The coffee must be allowed to “bloom” before the actual brewing begins.
When Alex tried her hands at making coffee, I took photos of every step of the procedure.
The Yellow Chair is at 48C Võ Văn TầnHo Chi Minh City, Vietnam.