Despite the best efforts of Starbucks et al who seem to be invading Bangkok with a ruthless efficiency, the best coffee in Thailand, like pretty much everything else, comes from solo entrepreneurs with little more than a roadside cart and a gas burner. Those who wish to indulge their caffeine habit with a skinny-frappa-latte-mochaccino may still do so but they are missing out on one of the city’s real treats.
The Thais love to nap. Second only to eating, dozing seems to be a national past-time. If a tuk-tuk driver isn’t racing through traffic he is likely to be parked under the shade of a tree, head back and eyes shut – a look of serene calm on his face. I suppose this explains the 24-hour nature of life in this city: catch some Zs in the day, keep going all night. It also explains the popularity of stimulant-laced drinks such as M-150 and Red Bull, a drink we are also familiar with, albeit in a slightly diluted and carbonated form. These frighteningly sweet, almost medicinal tasting drinks, are great at providing an intense and short lived burst of alertness (they also mix really, really well with Sam Song, a dangerously cheap brandy, just don’t expect to be sleeping any time soon if you have a night on these).
But despite the practicalities of these little brown bottles, I prefer my wake up call to be a little less sweet and slightly gentler. I also quite like my heart beating at its regular, sedate pace rather than an audible buzz which seems to be the effect of these liquid hyper stimulants. So coffee it was.
A busy road junction close to Chinatown was the temporary home of a coffee and tea cart sending wafts of tantalising smells through the fumes. Dodging the traffic, we ordered a coffee each and watched as an old lady went to work with dizzying speed: mixing, pouring, stirring and brewing with amazing skill. A large shot of coffee was mixed with sugar syrup and poured over crushed ice, steam pluming in fast disappearing curls above the rim of the cup where the hot coffee met the cool ice. This was topped up with condensed milk, dozens of tins of which weighed down the small cart.
Normally I am purist when it comes to matters coffee, especially first thing in the morning when only a double shot of thick, black espresso sweetened with a little Demerara sugar will do. The prospect of messing around with this base perfection irks me slightly. But my irk quickly evaporated, much like the steam from the gently boiling water on the cart, when I tasted this delightful drink. I am a convert, a genuine iced coffee convert. So much so that when we arrived home one of our first purchases was a tin of condensed milk so that we could recreate this moment of caffeine fuelled heaven.
And now, along with the sharp hissing of the espresso machine, the peace of the morning is regularly disturbed by the harsh grinding of the food processor as it works to crush cubes of ice. This is the best way to wake up when the sun is shining.
Thai style iced coffee
Fire up your coffee machine. Crush enough ice to fill a highball glass ¾ of the way to the top. Make a double shot of espresso and pour it into a mug. Mix in two teaspoons of brown sugar (white sugar is just too saccharine for this, it gives the coffee a nasty thin and synthetic taste). Add about 150ml of condensed milk. Stir it well and pour over the ice. A little sprinkle of cinnamon or nutmeg adds a nice warming note as well. NB – if you don’t have a coffee machine, a heaped teaspoon of instant coffee (gah, I hate it so much and it pains me to say this) mixed with a little boiling water should give a similar (although vastly inferior) result.