The larger coffee-drinking world still knows nothing about Asian coffee, but techniques and recipes are slowly but surely crossing the ocean to the Bay Area. James Freeman was famously inspired by a Japanese coffee shop when he founded Oakland-based Blue Bottle, for example, and the eyes of local fanatics will glaze with desire when the topic of transcendental, angelic, Bear Pond Espresso comes up. And at Breadbelly, a restaurant and cafe that’s open for takeout in the Richmond District of San Francisco, one can currently order one of Asian coffee’s most misunderstood preparations: coffee with an egg inside.
Clement Hsu and his co-owners at Breadbelly have served a riff on Vietnamese/Hanoian egg coffee, called cà phê trứng, since 2017. According to Hsu, when customers ask him about the frothy East Asian drink, he says “If you like condensed milk in your coffee, try it with some egg.”
Westerners often misunderstand the (often literal) richness of the egg coffees of East Asia. Whether it be the product of spirituality, colonialism, or additives Westerners would consider outlandish, many don’t see these variants as legitimate. Often they write them off or ascribe them as the much-abused “exotic.” But the history of these beverages is various and arcane: A monk named Kobo Daishi founded the Shingon sect of Buddhism in the year 816 under official sanction by Emperor Saga. In Koyasan, the mountain village where Japan’s contribution to Buddhism was born, there’s a little cafe serving black coffee with a raw egg stirred through.
Nestled in the Wakayama Prefecture, Koyasan has become a tourist destination for those looking to “wash away disgusting things and reset your mind.” This is how Komi Coffee, the shop selling that egg coffee, puts it. The shopkeep, who asked Eater SF to withhold his name, says that his restaurant’s drink also gives people a chance to wash their spirit clean.
In other countries, the egg plays a less spiritual role, and sustenance steps to the forefront. In the 1960s and 1970s, patrons of traditional coffee shops in Korea would order “morning coffee,” a cup of joe into which a raw egg yolk is dropped, seasoned by salt, sesame oil, and maybe a pine nut. Egg coffee has also been a go-to for Vietnamese café goers since 1946, when legend has it that Hanoi’s popular Giang Café (also known as Cà Phê Giảng) originated the brew with a recipe of chicken egg yolk, coffee powder, condensed milk and (optional) cheese, served inside a bowl of hot water.
Nguyen Van Dao, son of the original barista, Nguyen Van Giang, says that his father ran out of milk and, improvising, used egg as a thickener. The egg, with the same fortitude of protein it provides to baked goods, foams and enriches the coffee in the way most Westerners expect from milk. Another, more colorful Vietnamese egg coffee drink, sinh to ca phe chuoi bo, mixes coffee and egg with banana and avocado, to create what’s almost like a smoothie.
The various egg drinks share an origin story similar to that of pho, in that alternative ingredients are sourced in nations deprived of their typical meats and dairy products by an invading power. In this case, the egg in the coffee functions like creamer, but it also works like the famed “butter tea” made from yak milk in Bhutan, as a source of energy, perhaps for the battle ahead.
All these drinks are diametrically opposed to European forms of egg coffee. For example, Scandinavian egg coffee is made by cracking an egg into the coffee grounds before the pot is brewed, as a way to enrich the coffee’s flavor. If the Asian method of adding a raw egg to a brewed cup is like adding creamer, the “golden coffee” the Scandinavians brew is like adding cinnamon to beans as they’re ground.
Though New York’s Round K offers a moderately internet famous take on the drink with its Egg Cappuccino (poached egg, whipped cream, instant coffee, sugar, and cocoa), Breadbelly’s Clement Hsu says that he’d only had it a few times, and never outside Asia.
“I don’t know of any cafes serving it here in the city,” Hsu says. “I’m sure there are some good ones out here, though.”
If so, those cafes seem to be keeping it under wraps: though recently the Dalgona Korean egg coffee has splashed down on Instagram, calls to countless Bay Area cafes, polls of food journalists, and hours spent reading angsty Yelp and Google reviews haven’t produced any other egg coffee drinks besides Breadbelly’s. Not even California-based Vietnamese coffee company Copper Cow knows of any businesses producing any East Asian egg drinks.
The dearth of offerings is a mystery to Hsu, who says that “the smooth milky, eggy custard and bitter-sweet, tangy coffee combo is undeniably delicious.” At Breadbelly, which during the coronavirus crisis is open for online ordering and takeout during limited hours, their version adds a dash of evaporated milk to the mixture, and is made with a double ristretto shot of “Pillow Fight” espresso from local roastery Wrecking Ball.
Maybe it’s just a matter of proper marketing. “Describing egg coffee to our guests who have never had it has taken some practice,” Hsu admits. “Most people are used to having their eggs scrambled and on a plate next to their cup of coffee, not in their coffee. Acquainting our guests with unfamiliar, delicious foods and beverages is very much the spirit of Breadbelly. We’re really proud of doing that.”