Coffee around the world - Asia

Continuing from the previous article on our world tour of coffee, we’ve arrived in Asia.

We’ll start with the powerhouse, being China. Coffee has some tough competition in China, with tea playing a massive part in Chinese culture. We can elaborate on that when we do our next series on tea around the world. Research indicates that coffee consumption in China is increasing beyond the global rate, by about 15% per year. With the inclusion of a daily cup of coffee being a relatively new thing (actually when based on the whole population they consume the equivalent of only 5 cups each per year), like Australia, China will have the benefit of exposure to the World’s coffee preferences and adapt it to their liking.

Like China, consumer interest in coffee has increased recently in Hong Kong. Predominantly amongst the younger generations, coffee drinking is perceived as a sign of complexity and style. Here the focus is on “specialty coffee”, with the influence and demand coming from expats and globe-trotting baristas who have spotted a growing trend. The next few years will be interesting in terms of coffee economics in HK – with some of the highest rent prices in the world, only a handful of the multiple trend-following new cafes are likely to survive, however with continuing demand there’s no doubt that specialty coffee shops will remain a part of the region’s city-scape.

Popular in both China and Hong Kong is a coffee beverage called Yuanyang. Originally served by street vendors, it’s a mixture of 3 parts coffee and 7 parts Hong Kong-style milk tea. You can drink it hot or cold, and these days it’s also found in some restaurants.


Tibet could be credited with being the birth place of the current butter coffee sensation. Tibetans have been drinking butter tea forever. American David Asprey claims that the tea with yak butter he was served while in Tibet eliminated his altitude sickness and made him revitalised. Butter tea helps Tibetans keep their energy levels up, prevents chapped lips, aids in digestion, helps maintain focus and promotes cardiovascular health.

Japan – the busy land of technology, anime, miniature things and aesthetically pleasing food. Coffee was brought to Japan by some Dutch travellers living in Nagasaki in the late 18th century. Coffee didn’t really start to be imported in bulk however, until after World War II. While other countries of the world who had already been leisurely consuming coffee in a local coffeehouse while either engaging in heated political or religious debates, or battling wits in checkers or chess, the CEO of Japan’s first chain retailer, Doutor, had other ideas. Toriba Hiromichi envisaged the busy workers of Japan leaving home without breakfast, enduring a long commute to work and needing to grab a quick ‘boost’ and a cheap breakfast on the way to the office. This is yet another illustration of Japan leading and the rest of the world following. You’ll also find vending machines in Japan selling Kan Kohi – a canned coffee drink available hot in winter and cold in summer.

South Korea is also predominantly a nation of tea drinkers, although this is changing. While they don’t have a traditional coffee beverage I thought this was worth a mention. Seoul has 284 Starbucks. Two-hundred and eighty-four! That’s more than New York City! That’s a lot of plastic being thrown out each day!

Moving to South East Asia, if you’ve ever gone to a Vietnamese restaurant for pho or rice paper rolls you’ve probably seen Ca Phe Da on the menu. Let me tell you if you crave caffeinated drinks when you’re hungover, you’re going to love this even more than an icy can of Coke! You’ll get a little glass with some condensed milk, atop which will sit a French metal drip filter with your fresh coffee inside. Once the coffee has passed through filter, you’ll mix it with the condensed milk and either drink, or pour it over ice for a cold version. It’s heaven. Just pretend the sweet milk is calorie free!

Thailand gets two mentions. Thai iced coffee known as Oliang is commonly sold by street vendors and is a mixture of coffee, soybeans, sesame seeds and corn, which the drinker can dilute with condensed or evaporated milk and further sweeten with a simple syrup. A stranger commodity however is Black Ivory coffee. Developed by Canadian Blake Dinkin and produced in the Chiang Rai province of Thailand, the coffee beans are fed to Elephants and then collected from the dung. A gut reaction in the Elephant is said to break down the protein in the coffee, which is what causes a coffee’s bitterness. What’s most surprising is the price tag. An Elephant has to eat about 33kg of raw coffee cherries to produce 1kg of Black Ivory coffee. That, combined with the intensive job of collecting it from the Elephant dung results in it fetching a staggering US$1,100/kg.

Travel throughout Malaysia and Singapore and you’ll come across many places to order ‘Kopi’. Kopitiam are the local coffee houses and they serve a variety of hot and cold coffee and tea. These were originally set up by Chinese immigrants moving to Singapore seeking a better life and hoping to capitalise on the British trend of coffee drinking. They became places for people to socialise, often also offering cheap meals. Kopitiam coffee has a distinct taste, derived from dry wok frying with corn kernels and butter. It’s filtered through a thick “sock” strainer which is traditionally only rinsed instead of properly washed during its lifetime, gradually adding to the flavour of the coffee. It’s poured over condensed or evaporated milk (sometimes both) and sugar. You can order Kopi C – coffee with just evaporated milk; Kopi O – black coffee; Kopi Siutai – coffee with less sugar; Kopi Kosong – coffee with zero sugar; and Kopi Tarik – pulled coffee.

Crossing the Bay of Bengal we arrive in India. These guys make a version of coffee that will knock your socks off. Known as Kaapi, it’s made in a coffee filter that looks like two metal cups – one with a pierced bottom to allow the cup underneath to receive the freshly brewed coffee. It’s often also combined with chicory at this point, which apparently holds onto the water for longer, allowing it to extract more coffee from the grinds. The result is a drink much stronger than an espresso. It’s typically then mixed with boiling milk and sugar and ‘pulled’ between two cups, mixing, cooling and aerating it without watering it down.

Kate Lovell