Saturday, August 08, 2009

A Coffee Addict's Guide to Asia

I admit it, I'm hopelessly addicted to coffee, and if you're like me then you need your fix as much when you're bunking with New Guinean natives as when you're at home base. What follows are the results of years of research in the East. Starting from the worst and leading to the best, I'll take you through the ins and outs of coffee drinking in six Asian countries.

6. South Korea (kopi)
Far and away the worst of all Asian coffee destinations, and possibly the earth, Korea lands dead last for joe-hounds. What's worse, coffee isn't some obscure drink overshadowed by a superior local beverage - coffee is actually extremely popular here, and widely available in all sorts of crappy varieties. In general, it's instant coffee, the most popular being the 3-in-1 coffee, cream, and sugar mix. Just add water and if no spoon is available, stir with the unopened end of the stick shaped pouch. It only goes downhill from there, leading ultimately to the machine coffee found at the entrance of most restaurants. All the machine does is take extremely crappy instant coffee, and mixes in cream and sugar according to your choice. This stuff is the bottom of the barrel. It tastes like ass. It would be nice if you could just swear off coffee in Korea, but trust me, you're really going to need it in Korea to get through your day.

Stay well away from: Any and all machine coffee. It tastes like instant coffee made yesterday, mixed with sour milk and ball sweat.
Your best bet: Espresso-style coffee is making serious headway in Korea, and if you're willing to splash out you can get a good cup at Starbucks or one of the local varients like Holly's. They are super expensive though, often more than in the US. For a better price-to-quality ratio try Dunkin Donuts or, gulp, McDonalds.

5. Japan (kohi)
Welcome to the land of canned coffee. The variety is astounding: Black, sweet, milky, strong, weak, and available hot or cold from vending machines and conbini's (convenience stores) everywhere. The stuff is crap but might grow on you if you stay long enough.

Stay well away from: The coffee-flavored tea available in conbinis. OK, it's sold as coffee, but it's just a tea bag with coffee grounds, to be added to hot water, making what amounts to yes, coffee flavored tea. Beware.
Your best bet: It might be worthwhile to spring for the chains here. In addition to plentiful Starbucks there are a handful of local varients. A bit more affordable, comparatively, than Korea.

4: India (coffee)
In the north of India, tea (called chai) is king, but in the south coffee is drunk side by side at the tea-and-coffee wallas. It's all instant, and is really more coffee flavored than actual coffee. Like the chai, it's made with copious amounts of milk and sugar, rendering it quite unrecognizable as coffee. Still, it's pretty tasty.

Stay well away from: Unboiled water.
Your best bet: You'll probably do better just sticking to the tasty chai here.

3: Thailand (Ga-fae)
Coffee comes in many varieties in Thailand, the oldest (and cheapest) way being "bag coffee" (ga-fae tung). It's a dirty looking bag of coffee grounds dipped in hot water, making quite a strong brew, and mixed with large amounts of condensed milk. This takes some serious getting used to, but some, including myself, have come to enjoy it. You can, and probably should, ask for less than the full dose of condensed milk (sai nom nit noi). Otherwise, streetside espresso is catching like wildfire, or for a cooler environment for drinking, try any of the chain places.

Stay well away from: Stale beans. It sometimes pays to give the merchandise a sniff for freshness if the place looks like they don't do much business.
Your best bet: It's often worthwhile in Thailand to just go for that latte at the classy joint. It still won't be that expensive.

2. Vietnam/Cambodia/Laos
Laos and Cambodia have mostly followed the Vietnamese style of brewing coffee, which involves brewing individual cups drip style in a little metal apparatus which sits on top of the cup. Here coffee stands out for the quality of the beans, and Vietnam and Laos grow their own stuff. Vietnam is a huge coffee exporter, though mostly of the cheaper robusta variety. Here it's generally served up black so you can doctor it the way you like it.

Stay well away from: Anything that seems expensive, because this stuff should be super cheap.
Your best bet: It's all good here. Drink up!

1: Indonesia (Kopi)
Aaaah, the promised land of Asian coffee, it doesn't get better than Indonesia. Sumatra is famous the world over, but there are dozens of islands with their own distinctive bean, and they're all fiercly proud of it. Sample them all! Here coffee is drunk in the Turkish style - ground to a powder and mixed with boiling water, so don't drink that last bit!

Stay well away from: Yes it's good, but resist the urge to polish off that last sip unless you like eating mud.
Your best bet: It's so good you'll want to take a bag home with you - so go for it!

Hope you found it helpful. Did I miss something? Leave a comment!


Tasha said...

Malaysia? The Philippines? Burma?

For your readers who are avoiding caffeine but miss the taste: the #1 alternative is Teechino made in a stovetop espresso maker. Drink like you would any other espresso.

Jens said...

I actually disagree completely!
OF COURSE the South Korean instant stuff is crap, but I don't think it's representative of the country's "coffee culture" at all. More so is the stuff you find in the coffee shops - Holly's, Angel-in-us, Twosome Place, etc. There you get an excellent cup for 3000 won - which is about the same as a cup in a Japanese coffee house, after the exchange rate. (In Japan, a cup of Americano is usually about 250 yen.) Except it'll be far superior to a Japanese cup. I found the Japanese stuff to be strongly dirt-tasting, nowhere near the fine richness of a cup in a Korean coffee shop. Furthermore, Koreans do "coffee shops" better than any other country I've visited. They tend to be sprawling and spacious, with lots of comfortable chairs, as compared to the Japanese micro-shops. Go to any of the three-story Starbucks in Seoul, and you'll find they're superior to their American counterparts. I offer as vindication of Korean coffee this sample: a micro-French press of the organic blend at Twosome Place. Probably the best cup of coffee I've had in my life.

As for Vietnam and Indonesia, I found their coffee to be excessively acidic, probably because it's so finely ground. I drink coffee almost every day, but in those countries I switched to tea. Furthermore, Vietnam's habit of using sweetened condensed milk instead of cream and sugar is an inexcusable offense, and is guaranteed to make a cup taste worse than the most saccharine Japanese canned coffee.

As you can see, I feel strongly on this subject! I just got back from two weeks in Japan, and scoured the Tokyo area. The largest city in the world failed to provide a decent cup of coffee.

kushibo said...

Vending machine coffee in Korea is designed to awaken sleepy workers and nothing more. Victory Coffee, we used to call it.

But I would agree with Jens that there's a whole lot more to Korea's coffee culture than the vending machine coffee, or the canned coffee in all its varieties.

generic cialis said...

I never saw suzumiya haruhi drink coffee in the show... anyway, I'm not an addict but I really like to drink a couple of cups on morning and one on night, and the rest of the day, I always contain myself to not drink.