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How Café Du Monde Became a Vietnamese American Staple

  • 6 min read

Café Du Monde is a well known coffee company in the Vietnamese American community that can be used to make all sorts of traditional coffee drinks like Vietnamese iced coffee (Cà phê sữa đá) and Vietnamese egg coffee.

Café Du Monde has been a staple for many coffee lovers in the U.S. for more than a century. How did this come to be, especially for the Vietnamese American diaspora? We’re here to shed light on why Vietnamese Americans have come to love Café Du Monde as well as other key questions like: what exactly is Café Du Monde? Where did Café Du Monde come from? And is Café Du Monde Vietnamese coffee?

What is Café Du Monde?

With an iconic, ochre-yellow metal can, Café Du Monde is hard to miss. It’s a coffee company that specializes in one particular type of coffee: coffee mixed with chicory root, a plant native to Europe that was brought to the Americas. In terms of flavor profile, it has earthy, chocolatey, and roasted flavor notes.

Café Du Monde is more than just a coffee brand, however. It has a long history that spans over a century—and in recent decades, this coffee has found immense popularity among Vietnamese Americans in particular. 

Among the many immigrants who came to the United States, the French also brought their unique coffee culture with them. As they settled in the areas along the Gulf Coast and the Mississippi river, they shared their love of coffee with others.

As a consequence, in 1791, the New Orleans French Market was erected and there, the coffee shop Café Du Monde was born. 

Café Du Monde was a classic French-style coffee shop that served traditional French coffee—dark-roasted and often black—and other typical French foods and pastries such as beignets. They also served coffee with chicory, a type of beverage that had been made popular in Europe as a coffee substitute and in New Orleans by the Creole people. 

Since then, Café Du Monde has continued serving their classic dark roasted, chicory coffee, and beignets. This open-air coffee shop is open 24-hours and is a very popular tourist destination. Café Du Monde also has several locations around the world, most notably in Japan, where it came to have as many as 32 different locations as recently as 2016. 

Café Du Monde has even made a host of appearances in American media and is a part of American popular culture. Café Du Monde has appeared in films, TV shows, and even novels. 

Throughout the years, Café Du Monde has become one of the more iconic coffee brands alongside many large coffee companies we recognize today. What started as a French company and standalone shop in New Orleans has evolved into something much bigger in the American coffee landscape with far reaching distribution. 

The History of Chicory Coffee

To step back in time, France was particularly fond of coffee and brought it with them to colonies and beyond. Historically speaking, chicory coffee allowed for an affordable coffee experience when money was tight and people had to make ends meet.

This practice of mixing chicory root and ground coffee was something that the French, and many other European people, were already accustomed to. Coffee was quick to become a household staple in Europe during the 18th century, and many people made it part of their lives. 

Chicory coffee is made by roasting, grinding, and brewing it until you obtain a coffee-like drink. It is close to the real thing in terms of flavor and aroma, but it notably lacks caffeine. So while chicory was a solution and substitute, people began to mix it with coffee in order to get the effects of caffeine as well while cutting costs.

This practice was particularly important during the Civil War in the United States. When Union blockades cut off supply of coffee (and everything else), people in New Orleans started mixing chicory root with coffee, which some historians believe gave birth to the popularity that this beverage enjoyed and has to this day in the United States. 

With the birth of Café Du Monde, chicory coffee in the United States cemented itself as a lasting feature of coffee culture. Its French roots may lead some to believe that Vietnamese people have always enjoyed chicory coffee, but this would be a misnomer based on colonial history. 

Café Du Monde in Vietnamese American Households

Vietnamese presence in the United States was relatively low up until the 1970s. After the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese diaspora came to various parts of the U.S. Vietnamese refugees who settled in the South, or even to New Orleans itself, found that they could enjoy a type of coffee very similar to the one they had at home. 

Millions of Vietnamese refugees came to America with next to nothing, so they had to adapt. The flavor palette of Café Du Monde probably most resembled that of the streetside cà phê one might have been able to find in Vietnam during the 1900s.

While chicory is not an indigenous Vietnamese ingredient, it gives coffee a similar flavor to that of robusta, the main variety grown and consumed in Vietnam, due to its earthy and deep flavor notes. As such, Vietnamese refugees residing in the Deep South started sharing Café Du Monde with their friends and relatives all over the country, creating a demand for this type of coffee within the community. These days, Café Du Monde can be found in a large number of Asian supermarkets and Vietnamese shopping centers around the United States as well as served in Vietnamese restaurants and delis.

While Café Du Monde wasn’t exactly the same thing as coffee in Vietnam, Vietnamese Americans adapted to their new surroundings and used what they could to bring about familiar flavors of home. Café Du Monde became the go-to coffee source among the Vietnamese American community, and today it is still a beloved product for many Vietnamese American families.

Is Café Du Monde Vietnamese Coffee? 

There is, understandably, a bit of confusion as to whether Café Du Monde is Vietnamese coffee or not. Historically, chicory root mixed with coffee has been something that Europeans enjoyed at least since coffee became popular there. The flavor and aroma of chicory root was similar to that of coffee when roasted and grinded– and, more importantly, chicory root was much cheaper than coffee. 

Let’s make it clear, however, that this is neither a Vietnamese tradition nor Vietnamese coffee insofar as we know since Café Du Monde does not disclose where they source their beans from.

Café Du Monde and chicory coffee originated completely separate from Vietnam and Vietnamese culture. It was only until relatively recently with the mass exodus of Vietnamese refugees to the United States and elsewhere that Vietnamese people came to know and enjoy Café Du Monde as a product of cultural resilience and adaptability.

Ultimately, while it can’t be said that Café Du Monde is Vietnamese coffee, it will always be a part of Vietnamese American culture and history. For all intents and purposes, Vietnamese coffee is coffee grown and produced in Vietnam– whether that is true for Café Du Monde remains to be seen, so labeling it as Vietnamese coffee would be misleading.

Conclusion

French immigrants (among other groups) brought with them coffee culture to the American South, where it prospered and eventually culminated in the opening of Café Du Monde in the late 18th century, a coffee shop where French-style, chicory coffee was served. 

Almost two centuries later, this coffee would be discovered by Vietnamese refugees who longed for a taste of home and found something very similar in Café Du Monde. Vietnamese Americans popularized this type of coffee in their community where it has remained a staple in many households to this day.

Café Du Monde was for Vietnamese Americans originally a substitute for something that you can get in America relatively more easily nowadays: 100% Vietnamese coffee, grown and produced in Vietnam. 

From its humble beginnings to its adoption in the Vietnamese American community, Café Du Monde went from being an everyday item to a cultural staple that so many Vietnamese Americans of all ages can recognize and identify with. While Café Du Monde isn’t technically authentic Vietnamese coffee, we believe that it can be enjoyed by anyone nonetheless and it deserves its spot in the cultural history of the Vietnamese diaspora. 

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