Sunday, October 15, 2006

Nirvana in a cup

Today I found nirvana in a cup: Vietnamese ice coffee.

Vietnamese ice coffee is coffee with chicory (in the U.S. the prevalent brand is Cafe Du Monde which comes in mustard-yellow containers and is the coffee of choice in the New Orleans area -- the French influence all-round) made with boiling water poured into a manual espresso maker with a screw-down press where the grounds sit -- and sweetened condensed milk over ice. Yum! (And please don't even compare it to the medicinally-sweet Thai iced coffee-lite -- different, inferior ingredients, different, inferior taste.)

I've had this before, in fact my Vietnamese ice coffee days date back to my freshman year in college when my college roommate Doris (Vietnamese of course) would make it in our dorm room (I lived in an upperclass dorm in a suite with a kitchenette)! On it we would study for hours completely wired.

Then, I renewed my obsession with it when I worked for a Native American non-profit organization doing population research and community organizing. The Native American community in Chicago is not too far from the SE Asian refugee community, in the adjacent neighborhoods known as Uptown (in which my family lived in my pre-kindergarten years) and Argyle St. (or "Little Vietnam" -- with Vietnamese and Laotians and Cambodians)... In fact both communities share the fact that they were relocated by the U.S. government -- forcibly from reservations to cities for the Native Americans in the 50's and 60's and following the Vietnam War (or the "American War," as it is known over here) due to people's lives in danger, histories of torture, etc... They also share this history with the de-institutionalized mentally ill (forcibly de-institutionalized in the 60's) who wander the streets of Uptown.

My office was right across the street from a Vietnamese restaurant and we worked together with the SE Asian refugee community (we were trying to organize the many disenfranchised groups into one unified voice), and I ate there almost once daily (as I was a workaholic back then too, it wasn't unusual for me to take all my meals in the office!)

Once when working on a big project with a looming deadline I drank something like 5 of these back-to-back, and so my digestive system did not function properly for one week! I had to institute a moratorium on that coffee for a while.

Well, today I learned that I had actually not had Vietnamese ice coffee until today. The stuff in the U.S. does not compare to what I've found here on the street for $.25USD. It's truly nirvana in a cup on a hot (let me qualify that -- it's hot to me, 28 degrees Celsius but not hot for SE Asia), humid day on a street in Saigon.

And don't get me started on nirvana on a plate!


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