The Best Coffee in the World?

Champa Coffee, Vientiane

My schedule was rough this past week, exacerbated by the mistake of forgetting to replenish our coffee supply.  Like many people, I designate one day each week for buying groceries (usually Sundays): I make a list, go to the store and, if anything is overlooked, I can pretty much forget about making anything that requires said item for that week.  The hassle of returning to the store is too much for me to overcome.  I envy other parts of the world where lifestyles are conducive to getting fresh ingredients on a more regular basis.  In any case, this week the item I forgot – of all things – was coffee.

I started out with good intentions.  I had just enough grounds (scraping the bottom of the can) to get me through Monday.  Then I said to myself, You MUST stop by the store on the way home from work.  However, 4:30pm Monday afternoon came around, and I just wanted to get home.  I had a lecture to plan, and I needed to exercise.  So Tuesday comes around, and I have a speaking engagement.  I told myself to buy coffee before the lecture, but I ended up lying on my floor instead, staring at the ceiling, until it was time for me to go to campus.  The next afternoon, Wednesday, I went straight from work to class and, after lecturing for 2 hours to a roomful of sleepy students, I put off going to the store for yet another day.  You can see where this is headed.  Straight down the road towards a full week of zombiism.  Somehow, I made it through only with copious amounts of green tea and my reserve stash of 3-in-1 Dao coffee that my mom brought back from her last trip to Laos.

I have no idea how much caffeine each little sachet contains.  The effect is probably psychological: in the same way that smokers might be comforted by simply holding a cigarette, my brain likes that commute to work a little more if I have a travel mug in my hand.  I haven’t had a real cup of Lao coffee in years, yet the aroma inside these packages instantly took me back to a little cafe in the Northern province of Luang Prabang.

Tuesday 21 November 2006

The morning after our 8-hour van ride to the North, we were up before the sun.  I was groggy from nightmares of bandits attacking us when we stopped to relieve ourselves in the bushes, thanks to Mom’s stories.

Outside our hotel room, the air was thick and cool from the morning fog; I remember because it was the first time my cousin, Lan, had ever seen fog.  Her expression was priceless as Mom and I explained that we were basically among the clouds.  She grew up in Vientiane and has rarely ventured out, but instead of being a stereotypical city girl, she is what we jokingly call baan nok (country).  Flushing toilets and air conditioning both impress and confuse her.  She complained about the “cold” weather (maybe 60 degrees Fahrenheit) and was relieved to stop at a coffee shop before we embarked on our full day of sightseeing.  I ordered a regular cup with cream and sugar.  We sat outside, quietly sipping and observing as the monks passed by for morning alms.  I remember the crispness of the mountain air and the steam rising from my mug.  To this day, if you ask me where I would like to go for coffee, anywhere in the world, I would pick that place.

After discovering that my cousin, Nang Xan, could also make fantastic iced coffee, I began to wonder if it was a native trait.  She uses a cloth strainer, slowly dipping the grinds several times in boiling water with indefatigable diligence.  She adds just the right amount of cream and sugar and, during my stay with her family, I became accustomed to her leaving a pitcher in the refrigerator for me.

I have done some traveling in my life but have only really seen parts of Southeast Asia and France, so my claim that Lao coffee is the best in the world is probably biased at best.  Still, I have yet to find a brew more balanced, smooth, and aromatic.  In Vientiane, there is a little stand at the Morning Market called Champa Coffee; it was my favorite place to get an iced latte.  I’d like to have such a stand at the corner of my street here in America.  I don’t see how you wouldn’t make a million dollars.

These are the thoughts that ran through my head while contemplating how much caffeine is in my 3-in-1 packs, quietly hating life for the moment because the answer is, more than likely, not very much.

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