Americans love coffee – and for good reason. It reportedly has a host of health benefits (that is, if it doesn’t cause cancer); in some ways, it changed the course of civilization; and if that’s not enough, it has the nearly magical ability to power you through your most dreary work day. But when it comes to coffee drinking traditions, we don’t have much beyond grabbing a venti pumpkin spice latte on the way to work or sitting at a coffee shop for hours, soaking up the free internet.
In some countries, coffee is a ritual that stretches well beyond liquid fuel. Here are 10 of the best, most creative and most bizarre ways to drink coffee around the world:
Cà phê (sữa) đá (Vietnam)
Vietnam is one of the largest coffee-producing countries on earth, but the beans that come out of this Southeast Asian nation aren’t the arabica sought out in Western countries for their complex flavors, but rather the more intense, bitter robusta beans, which most famously make their way into instant coffees and bottom-shelf grocery store cans.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t have some of the world’s tastiest coffee in Vietnam. To make the strong coffee more palatable, it drips through a metal filter called a phin, slowly into a glass filled with sweet condensed milk. Without ice, it’s known locally as cà phê đá, but in this steamy tropical country, you may want to track down a Vietnamese ice coffee (cà phê sữa đá). It’s served everywhere from fancy cafes to coolers attached to bicycles on the street.
Yuenyeung (Hong Kong)
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Can’t decide between coffee and tea? In Hong Kong, you don’t have to. Vendors all over Hong Kong guard their secret recipes for this concoction – and the ratio of tea to coffee is considered a delicate balance.
The name – which literally translates to lovebirds tea – is actually named after mandarin ducks (though some believe it’s about yin and yang), which are very different in appearance, but balance each other perfectly. This drink, if made properly, should taste neither like tea nor coffee, but rather, according to some, more of a cross between chai and hot chocolate.
The Arctic north of Sweden has one of the more unusual coffee traditions on the globe. The Sami people of Swedish Lapland keep warm with a cup of coffee and kaffeost – literally coffee cheese.
Here, a cup of Joe is generally boiled over an open fire and served in a traditional guksi, a hand-carved wooden mug made from a birch burl. It’s served with cheese that tastes somewhere between halloumi and cheese curds. And yes, people dip the cheese directly into the coffee.
Kopi Luwak (Indonesia)
What has gained notoriety as some of the most expensive types of coffees on earth is also one of the most bizarre. Known in English as civet coffee or, colloquially as “cat poo coffee,” kopi luwak is made from coffee cherries that have been eaten, digested and excreted by a civet – a cat-like mammal that lives in Southeast Asia. Going through the digestion allegedly results in a smooth, flavorful brew that comes with a hefty price tag. But beware – with its fame has also come a black market for counterfeit coffee.
Cafe de olla (Mexico)
Cafe de olla is to coffee what mulled wine is to vino. This spiced Mexican coffee – traditionally cooked in a clay pot – is made with cinnamon and piloncillo (cones of minimially processed sugar that’s more reminiscent of Zapaca rum than Domino sugar).
Some recipes call for additions like cloves and oranges, but most homes and village street-side coffee joints – which is where you’re most likely to come across cafe de olla – keep it simple.
In Italy, the preferred way to drink coffee is quickly. Regardless of whether you’re getting an espresso, a cappuccino or a macchiato, chances are you’re not going to be sitting for a long chat or a laptop work session – at least not at a classic Italian cafe.
Traditionally, Italians sidle up to the bar, order an espresso just hot enough that it won’t burn your throat, and down the entire thing while standing up. Then they move onto the rest of their day (which very well might include several more espressos).
At coffee houses in Vienna, “time and space are consumed, but only the coffee is found on the bill.” At least that’s what UNESCO said when it added Viennese coffee culture to its intangible cultural heritage list, and there are quite a few coffee houses that date back more than 300 years.
A few such cafes still serve kaisermelange, or egg coffee. This drink is made by stirring a glass of egg yolk and honey (and occasionally cognac) as coffee is slowly added to temper the egg. These days, you need to seek the drink out, as you won’t find it on many menus; a similar take on egg coffee is actually more popular in Vietnam.
Chicory coffee (New Orleans)
New Orleans’ most famous contribution to cafe culture might also be its most polarizing. Chicory – an uncaffeinated root that gained popularity in the U.S. during the American Civil War, when it was used as filler for heavily rationed coffee – ranges in flavor from herbaceous to bitter. It’s an acquired taste, but many visitors to The Crescent City don’t drink it for long enough to acquire the taste.
Turkish coffee (Turkey)
In Turkey, coffee is as much about the ritual as the drink itself. Robust Turkish coffee is ground into super-fine powder, then cooked (along with any desired sugar) directly inside a small metal pot called a cezve. Served in tiny, ornate cups alongside Turkish delight candy, coffee is enjoyed slowly and usually served with a dose of lengthy conversation.
Arabic coffee (Middle East)
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In various countries in the Middle East – including Yemen – they serve coffee similar to the finely ground Turkish variety. When mixed with cardamom before grinding – a common practice – the coffee takes on an herbaceous, refreshing, almost minty taste. Rarely cooked with sugar, it’s usually made in a large, intricately designed pot called a dallah, which has a crescent beak and a spire top.