กาแฟ Kāfæ (Coffee)

February 23, 2017

Chiang Mai, Thailand

My life here in Chiang Mai has begun to settle into a bit of routine. I sleep in most days until 9:30 or 10am. My friend, Nick, will message me and ask if I’m ready to go get something to eat. I grudgingly get out of bed and wash up and brush my teeth before slipping into some semi-clean clothing and sandals to walk to grab breakfast. There are so many cafes and food stalls to choose from within walking distance that we could probably eat at a different one every day for six months. But we end up patronizing the same few, as one would back home. When you find a diner and a waitress you’re comfortable with, you sort of gravitate to that place.

I know that I’ve mentioned this before, so forgive me if it’s repetitive, but our morning meals tend to include rice or noodles, meat, vegetables, an egg, and lots of heat from the peppers. We have become accustomed to the spiciness, to the point that we will usually add extra from the condiment jars on the table. Just like real Thai people. Okay, maybe we don’t make it quite as spicy as they do yet, but we’re improving.

Normally, with a meal like that back home in Chicago, I would have ordered a Diet Pepsi to wash it down with, but I have yet to see a Diet Pepsi in Thailand. I haven’t had one since leaving Chicago two months ago. So here my drink of choice is iced coffee. And I have found one place in particular from where I prefer to order my coffee. Yes, it’s the little coffee stand in the mall basement food court. The one with the pretty woman who has the lovely smile. Now I will admit that the reason I bought coffee from her the first time was because of the smile she gave me when our eyes met as I sat at the table near her counter. Okay, maybe the second time, too. She’s really got a great marketing technique going there. But damn if her coffee isn’t good. And less expensive than the cafes where I normally would buy a coffee with my meal. (Expensive is a really relative term, because it’s the difference between $1.30 and 86 cents US. Try getting that deal at your local Peet’s)

If you order an iced Thai coffee, what you get is a mixture of a very strong, black liquid, sugar, powdered creamer, sweetened condensed milk all stirred together and poured over a large cup of crushed ice, then topped with more regular condensed milk. It looks like a Starbucks iced cappuccino, but tastes way better. It is very similar to Vietnamese ca phe sua da (sweetened iced coffee). I’d place my order, and watch as the woman would draw hot water with a ladle from a large electric urn, then pour it into a cloth bag in which she had placed a large amount of ground coffee beans. She would hold the bag over a glass that contained the other ingredients, letting the extremely dark and aromatic coffee drain into the container until it was completely full. She then stirred the concoction and poured over the ice, topping it off with more ice and condensed milk before sticking a lid on the cup. I would then happily exchange 30 baht for the icy goodness and put a straw in the top before thanking her and walking away.

I really looked forward to my coffee, smile, and eventually daily conversation with May, as it turns out her name is. I walked up one morning and she surprised me by greeting me in my language. Her English isn’t perfect, and sometimes I don’t quite understand what she is trying to say at first, but it’s way better than my Thai at this point. During our conversation, I told her that although I loved the sweetened version of the Thai coffee, I really wanted to have it black. She looked at me in disbelief, and said “no sweet?”  I nodded, but she went ahead and put a tablespoon of sugar into the cup anyway, because she says that nobody can drink it completely black. I laughed and acquiesced. The result was a tall clear cup of ice filled with the obsidian brew. It was very strong, and it was completely delicious. May shook her head, still not quite convinced that I could drink it like that. So for the past three days, I’ve had my coffee ice cold, super dark, and with only a slight hint of sweet. I still do like the “regular” version, but the calorie count has to be tremendous.

Yesterday, May told me that she is going to have to move her coffee stand somewhere else, as the food court management has decided not to renew her lease when it ends in the middle of March. She is in a very small area that she shares with at least two other vendors, and it seems that management is letting one of the food vendors expand into the tiny space she inhabits. I hope she finds a good spot, and that it’s conveniently located. Need to feed my addiction.

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