In Vietnam, dubious outlets may serve you a delicious, flavorful cup of coffee made of nothing more than a few drops of coffee essence and water.
Besides mixing coffee with soybeans and corn and selling the final products as ‘100 percent pure coffee,’ the coffee business in Vietnam, one of the world’s biggest coffee exporters, also involves making it from coffee essence.
On June 29, Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper visited a grocery store in Buon Ma Thuot, the capital of Dak Lak Province in the Central Highlands, known as the country’s coffee hub, and asked to buy some coffee essence.
The storekeeper agreed to introduce her products – several plastic bags of ash-colored powders and bottles of blackened, glutinous liquid, in a dark corner, beneath the stairway of the house.
“Pour these into fresh water and you will have ‘pure coffee’,” she said, pointing to the bottles.
At the store, in addition to the ‘magical’ coffee essence, there were also other flavorings and ingredients used to make bun bo and cha lua, or Vietnamese beef noodles and pork bologna, without those kinds of meat.
All were stored in plastic bottles and bags that were either unlabelled, or with labels written entirely in Chinese lettering.
The storekeeper revealed that all products were sourced from Kim Bien Market, infamously known as the ‘market of death’ in Ho Chi Minh City, where myriad kinds of chemicals are as easy to buy as candy.
Because the media have widely denounced the sale of chemicals at Kim Bien, vendors have become more cautious with strangers.
Consequently Tuoi Tre’s attempts to buy coffee essence at the market in District 5 had repeatedly failed, until the owner of a booth named N.N. accepted the reporters’ request.
A bottle of coffee essence on sale at Kim Bien Market in Ho Chi Minh City
She offered two types of essence; one fetching VND200,000 (US$8.93) a kg, and the other at double the price.
The owner then asked her daughter to take out a 5kg bottle of the black, condense liquid that had a strong coffee smell.
The store owner stressed that the product was only essence, and mainly used to increase the flavor of real coffee.
“It is not meant to completely replace authentic coffee as rumored,” she said, before explaining that the best way to use the essence was to “add a few drops to brewed coffee,” which will make it tastier and more delicious.
The store owner also warned the reporters not to touch the essence with their bare hands because the smell would be hard to remove.
“Inhaling too much of this essence will also result in a headache,” she added.
The owner of a nearby store at Kim Bien Market introduced similar coffee essence products, and stated the same disclaimer that it was impossible to make coffee using only the essence.
However, it is not clear what dishonest coffee sellers do with the essence, as they are not obliged to follow warnings from chemical traders.
A recent survey revealed that more than 30 percent of coffee consumed daily across four Vietnamese provinces and cities actually contained miniscule caffeine content, or no caffeine at all.