Mixing coffee with eggs makes no sense at all. The two go together like ducks to boiling water.
Yet in Vietnam this is a thing. In fact it’s a very big thing.
Using egg whites instead of cream or milk was necessary in the 1940s due to rationing during the war.
Condensed milk, the usual supplement added to coffee in Vietnam, was in short supply so café owner Nguyen Van Giang used eggs instead. And his idea took off.
Now, some 70-odd years later, egg coffee is served by the bucket load at two of Hanoi’s oldest cafes, both run by decedents of Giang.
“My father worked as a chef at the Metropole hotel during wartime, and he also opened a coffee shop of his own,” said Nguyen Van Dao, owner of Cafe Giảng on Nguyen Huu Huan Street in the Old Quarter.
“At that time people liked drinking milk coffee, but milk was rare and very expensive so my father couldn’t afford it. So he came up with this drink. It went beyond his imagination that people liked it, some said they even liked it more than milk coffee.”
My first foray into the world of egg coffee was my ‘eureka moment’. A wake up. Before I ventured into Café Đinh on Hoan Kiem Lake I had never drunk coffee in my life. It was always tea for me.
Yet here I was drinking, or actually more like eating, this yellow coloured creamy concoction, and I couldn’t get enough.
It’s almost incorrect to describe it as a coffee when in reality it is more like a dessert, whipped up and lovingly created by the hands of a master chef.
“A lot of people asked me why my egg coffee was so good. I said we had our own secret formula,” Dao added.
“Of course we have a secret formula, otherwise the coffee wouldn’t taste that good. I’m using the same recipe as my father. He said ‘It’s my specialty; help me preserve it’. And I agreed.”
Both cafes have become must-see venues for tourists visiting Hanoi. There may be more choice of drinks and comfortable surroundings in one of the many chain coffee shops on most street corners, but other than the language the menus are written in, one Starbucks is pretty much the same as the next.
“Actually I’m not really a fan of chains of coffee shops in general,” said Swiss tourist Janine Weber.
“I am not coming to Vietnam to come into a chain which we also have in Switzerland. It is much more authentic being here with the Vietnamese people and experience the real Vietnam.
“I don’t normally drink coffee back home in Switzerland but this is not a real coffee, it is something really special like a dessert.”
American visitor Helen Tomlinson agreed.
“I like this place because there seems like there’s a lot of locals here,” she said.
“The coffee is excellent. I’ve never had egg coffee before. So I came this morning about 8.30 and then I brought my family back.
“This is more Vietnamese, and I like the idea when I came this morning they were measuring the coffee, they were grinding the coffee. It seems like things are made very fresh here. And the egg coffee is very different for me.”
Right now, Vietnam is not the only country serving egg coffee.
“We have opened one coffee shop in Japan,” added Café Giảng owner Dao.
“People from England and Germany have asked us to open similar shops in their countries. Even Czech and Australia. I guess we will be there so that the world knows there is such a thing called egg coffee from Vietnam.
“I like that idea, because the more we are open to people, the more they will like us. Especially nowadays when people often want to taste the most unique flavours, and this is one of the most unique things about Hanoi.”
By Paul Kennedy