"Why Thai coffee doesn’t taste like coffee?" asked me one of the readers of my book Back in Bethlehem. Those who have not read the book won’t understand my surprise at the question. Part of the book takes place in Thailand, coffee is clearly mentioned, yet… it’s like visiting Bangkok’s Grand Palace and asking the guide about Angkor Wat. "After all there is a model of the Cambodian site in the Thai Palace," would the traveler justify the unexpected question.
Yet, don’t forget that a European visiting an American coffee shop would exclaim the same at the sight of the wildly flavored coffees offered in the latter. Moreover, the "chai" sold in America is not even remotely similar to Burmese chai. Coffee was introduced to Thailand from Laos, which got the technology from its colonial masters, the French. Little known due to its limited exports, Laotian coffee is considered among the best in the world. Some of the coffee available in Thailand originates in Laos, especially the coffee sold along the Thai Mekong riverside towns. I reviewed the extraordinary Laotian coffee preparation method in the journal love from First Sip. I won’t touch the preparation issue here; after all, what does it matter if the resulting coffee doesn’t taste like my favorite cup of coffee?
The main drink sold in Thai coffee stalls is called "gafeh tung," the general name for all the coffees prepared with a cloth filter (if you want it black and hot, then ask for "gafeh ron," see Between a "G" and a "K" in this journal). A cup can be bought for B10 (roughly $0.33); this includes a complementary cup of green tea after the coffee. Thais seldom drink the coffee black; usually a thick layer of condensed milk is poured into the cup first and then it is followed by the coffee and some water to dilute it down to a drinkable concentration. To end the process in a neat conceptual circle, a bit of evaporated milk is added; the coffee is so dark that the milk added in such a way does not have any effect on its color. After the blend is stirred, the thick, solid brown color of perfection is achieved. The result is much thicker than any coffee in the West and tourists drinking it for the first time often compare it to thick chocolate.
However, my reader was correct. Not only the texture is different, the taste is also unusual. Starbucks serves vanilla and chocolate flavored coffees; adding flavors is a common practice also in Western countries. Thais prefer other flavors, and to the ground coffee, they add ground tamarind or pickled plum. The specific flavor is decided by the staff, since due to the nature of the process, all the coffees at a given moment are prepared with the same filter. As well, the condensed milk contains palm oil. The result is quite attractive and features that lush richness of the tropics, though it doesn’t resemble a proper Italian cappuccino.