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Thailand for beginners

The country in a nutshell

How to eat street food: Thai coffee

Our How to Eat series explores popular street food in Thailand and explains the how-and-what of ordering. Ready, set, EAT.

The sun rises high and hot in Bangkok; monks pad up and down the streets begging for alms, motorcycle taxis cruise alleys for fares, soi dogs sniff at offerings left roadside, and coiffed bank tellers, shop sellers and nurses sashay from quiet houses to sally forth and start the day. First stop for most people: a coffee stand. A relatively new drink in Southeast Asia (when compared to tea), coffee is everywhere in Thailand. While not an object of macho ownership like New York coffee ordering rules, nor as delicately selective as Californian Double Capp Soy Milk Lean no foam, a primer is needed to get exactly what you want.

Thai Iced Coffee: the first one's free. Then you're hooked.

Thai iced coffee: the first one's free. Then you're hooked.

Select your coffee type
There are three kinds of coffee available at your local coffee stand: espresso, kaffe boran and kaffe pong. Espresso is only available when you see the machine. Kaffe boran is coffee that is normally roasted in a little bit of fat (it’s more delicious than it sounds — and gives the final product a lovely thick texture), ground roughly, and then served brewed in a device that looks like a sock suspended on a stick. It’s great and you should drink it every day. Kaffe pong is instant coffee. Normally your correspondent likes to judge instant coffee and the people who drink it, but he’s been shamed enough times by delicious, delicious iced coffees made with instant coffee that there might room at the table for what many would consider a symbol of 1960s hubris.

Temperature?
Hot (ron) will be served in tiny paper cups. Cold (yen) will be served either in a paper cup or a plastic bag, both filled to the brim with ice and the ubiquitous straw.

Yeahhhhh.

Yeahhhhh.

Milk?
Nom sot is fresh milk, nom tamada condensed milk, and nom kom is sweetened condensed milk. It’s not very common to find fresh milk, but condensed milk is everywhere. Like your coffee black? Ask for it mai sai nom (don’t add milk — but everyone will stare at you like you are a weirdo).

Sweetness?
Be careful with the sweetness. “Normal” sweetness at most coffee stands would seem to cause instant onset diabetes. You can specify by saying mai waan, waan, or waan maak (not sweet/sweet/very sweet). If you want your coffee not sweet at all, ask for it mai sai namtan (don’t add sugar).

A little from column A…
When you order, just combine your new vocabulary according to this formula for your perfect cup of morning coffee: coffee type, temperature, milk, sweetness. If you want a sweet cold coffee with fresh milk, you ask for kaffe yen waan sai nom sot. A hot black coffee with no sugar would be kaffe ron mai sai nom mai sai namtan.

But hurry up with it, friend. There’s a line forming behind you.


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