It felt like a triple dog dare – I was compelled to have a drink of Cà Phê Chồn since I had been talking it up for so long. My fellow travelers only half believed me that it existed. Would Lonely Planet lie?? Of course not. The funny thing is the first I ever heard of this special coffee was an episode of CSI where the rare bean was a clue to a murder. So it was the moment of truth when we found a coffee shop restaurant with an open terrace five floors above Lake Hoan Kiem at the center of Hanoi.
We asked for “weasel coffee” and the waiter, feigning to understand, said he didn’t have it. Several re-pronunciations of ca phe chon, however, got the message through and he happily pointed to it on the menu. “I’ll have one.” Alan, an Italian and perhaps, of those of us present, the expert on coffee by birthright surprised me by ordering one himself. (When I taught English in Italy, the average Italian struck me as very particular when it comes to food – and who can blame them coming from such a culinary heaven?)
Coffee Chon is called weasel coffee by us irreverent Westerners because of the process by which it is produced. The finest coffee berries are fed to what must be a very jittery bunch of civets (not actually weasels). (When left on their own, the civet actually sniffs out the best of the berries.) What goes in must come out and the resulting “processed” beans are washed (thank heavens), dried in the sun, roasted, and finally ground to make this strange, less bitter blend of coffee. It costs more than the regular cup of Joe.
Vietnam, bless its heart, is not one of the many countries in the world that believes Nescafe is actually good coffee (though their abundant crop of coffee each year goes primarily to produce that very variety). With the hot climate it seems the iced coffee is most popular and many drinkers will add condensed milk to the mix. Like tea in other cultures, there is a bit more charm to the brewing process than just jamming a spoonful of freeze-dried what’s-it into a cup of water. A small metal cup with tiny holes in the bottom is placed over a small glass and receives the grounds. Another filter is rested on top of the coffee. A bit of starter water is dripped in to moisten the grounds, otherwise they would flow right through that filter. Add hot water after that pause, cover it with a small lid, and wait as the double espresso-sized glass slowly fills with a trickle of lovely dark coffee.
We watched our coffee drip through what we affectionately referred to as weasel sh*t and about five or ten minutes later it was time to try it. It had a slightly thicker mouth feel to it than espresso, was highly charged like that drink, and offered a strange lingering sweetness(?). In fact, not just inoffensive, but rather good, though it made me stop often and try to figure out what I was tasting. Was that a hint of weasel I detected???
Days later in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) I hunted down the weasel droppings at the famous Ben Thanh Market and had them ground and sealed for the flight back to Bangkok all the while humming my new Vietnamese children’s song, “Poop Goes the Weasel.”
Ain’t he cute? Now imagine him all hepped up on caffeine. He’ll gouge your little eyes out. (photo from JackyBlue)
Then I went home and started telling everyone about my great coffee adventure. But then I started thinking… This is the most expensive coffee in the world. It sells for $15 or $30 per cup in some places and £50 for 100g (or green for “just” £97 per kilo)(source)! But you can buy 100 grams of beans for less than $2?? One can apparently mimic the digestive effects on the beans and there is some effort to at least make the coffee different from the normal variety. Could it be that tourists are being scammed into buying artificial caphe chon??? No way! Unimaginable! Well, there is no test at the moment for whether this coffee is authentic, but I am pretty sure that the shit involved in its creation comes from a bull.