Surprisingly delicious combinations of flavors in a unique coffee drink from Cartagena, Spain
Having been raised in a Mormon family, coffee was never in my house as I was growing up. And that was fine with me. I don’t think I actually tried coffee until I was in college already and out of the Church. Upon trying it, my reaction was probably typical of those who try it for the first time; I thought it was nasty, and I was determined never to make the mistake of allowing that vile drink to touch my mouth ever again. Over time, however, I started making friends with people who could articulately discriminate between the subtle differences in various types of coffee roasts. I came to associate coffee with a certain class of people who loved the drink in the same way they would appreciate fine art, music, and literature. Of course, now I realize that that idea is a bit silly, since coffee drinkers come from all walks of life and are no better at analyzing culture than non-coffee drinkers. Nonetheless, coffee started to represent for me part of a sophisticated adult’s daily routine, and I longed to be more mature and cultured. Thus, I became open to future flirtations with coffee. Over time, I began to appreciate the smell of coffee, at least, if not the taste.
A study abroad trip to Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico in 2002 while I was in my Master’s program opened me up to learning more about coffee as a crop and as a cultural artifact that reveals valuable insights about its producers and consumers. Veracruz is a coffee-rich region, as the climate, topography, and altitude are ideal for it. Soon, I learned that the coffee in Latin America was unlike that I had previously tried in the United States. It’s so flavorful and rich that it doesn’t need the large amounts of cream and sugar that I used to make it palatable in my earlier forays. I ordered it occasionally in what would be my favorite cafés, El Gran Café de la Parroquia (better known just as La Parroquia) and El Ágora. The original La Parroquia café, located in the port city of Veracruz, is very old and famous, but there’s a relatively new branch across the street from Parque Juárez in Xalapa. The coffee here is excellent, and I highly recommend the café lechero, which isn’t your typical café con leche. A surprisingly small amount of strong coffee is served in a clear glass. When you’re ready for the milk, just tap your spoon on the side of the glass to summon the waiter whose sole responsibility, it seems, is to walk around with a huge pitcher of hot milk, which he pours into your glass from high up. Here’s a video of what the experience is like at the original location:
Fast forwarding several years, my father-in-law, don Roberto, is a coffee farmer outside of Xalapa. I always enjoy visiting his coffee plantations because the nature and views are breathtaking. It’s fun to take the kids and try my hand at picking the ripe coffee beans. Sometimes when I get frustrated with my chosen profession, I daydream about leaving everything behind and moving to Mexico with the family to help him with all the work in the coffee fields. While it’s kind of a romantic idea, I realize that I wouldn’t last that long. Don Roberto has a lifetime of experience planting and harvesting coffee. There’s so much knowledge (regarding things like fertilization, pest control, spacing, timing, etc.) that I don’t have and wouldn’t be able to acquire at this stage of my life. And the work is so hard; there’s no calling in sick or taking the day off if it’s raining. And it’s not necessarily profitable. There are some years when the price of coffee is so depressed that it’s difficult to break even.
Living in the United States, it’s hard to get coffee that comes close to the coffee I’ve been served in Mexico and Costa Rica. I’ve tried different methods of preparing the coffee, from using the stove top espresso maker from Italian brand Bialetti to the typical drip coffee maker and even the traditional chorreador from Costa Rica. These days, I’ve settled on the French press for its simplicity, elegance, and the ability to clean up easily. I’ve found that the method of preparation is not as important as the coffee itself. One brand that I like is Café Britt, which comes from Costa Rica. (As an aside, Café Britt has a very entertaining coffee tour in Costa Rica, near the capital of San José, where I’ve taken students on several occasions; I highly recommend it if you get the chance.) Lavazza is a high quality Italian brand that I also enjoy. While the coffee I prepare these days still doesn’t compare with what I get when I go to Latin America, it’s gotten better.
While I like to think that I can hold my own in a conversation on the topic of coffee, I know that there is so much that I still don’t know. Never was that clearer than this past New Year’s Eve, when my family and I were invited to spend the evening with our friends from Spain, Sergio and Yolanda, and their family. She is from Murcia, while he is from Cartagena. While there, we were asked if we wanted a café asiático, which, I was embarrassed to admit, I was unfamiliar with. They explained that this drink is typical in Cartagena, and it consists of condensed milk, brandy, Licor 43, espresso, milk foam, and garnish, if desired. Before continuing, I should mention that I’m not much of a drinker these days. I’ll have communion wine at mass, but not much else. (And because of the Coronavirus, we’re not even drinking communion wine.) Brandy is not something that interests me in the least. I am, however, familiar with Licor 43, a sweet and thick golden-colored Spanish liqueur, often drank with Coca-Cola, which gives it a hint of citrus and vanilla.
Sergio prepared for us the asiático without brandy, thankfully. Watching him make it was almost like watching an artist. There is a special clear glass with thick sides that is used in a traditional asiático. The glass has special markings on it that indicate how much of the different liquids should be used. The sweetened condensed milk comes first, followed by the brandy and Licor 43 (if desired), espresso, milk foam (or evaporated milk), and garnished with powdered cinnamon, lemon peel shavings, and a coffee bean or two. It’s a drink that looks so beautiful with its different layers that you almost don’t want to defile it by mixing it together and drinking.
Here’s a video showing how the drink is made:
Of course, I had to ask Sergio why this drink is called an asiático. Apparently, there’s some debate about the origin of the name. In a book on the history of the drink that Sergio showed me, it says that the name came from a belief held in the 19th century that the drink was helpful to make people who were sick with an Asian virus to feel better. Other reports I saw held that Spanish sailors brought the drink back to Spain with them after learning about it in Asia. Elsewhere, people claim that the drink was originally from Russia and called a café ruso, but the negative association with communism prompted a name change.
Whatever the truth about the origins of the café asiático may be, what I like about this drink, besides the taste of it, is that it is a clear example of how people combine elements that may not seem, at first glance, to go well together, but they create something unique that adds to the local culture. As I think about Spain, creations like the calimocho and even sangría come to mind as other good examples of drinks that combine different competing flavors that taste even better when made into a hybrid than apart. I have to admit that my thoughts about Spain are similar. All of the culturally and linguistically different autonomous communities combine to form a country that I (and countless others) love. Certainly, there are real and valid complaints that a region like Catalonia, for example, should bring attention to in hopes that they can be rectified, but I wish that those differences could be resolved without secession. (My apologies for the brief political digression.)
Would you try a café asiático? Do you recommend any other unique drinks from Spanish-speaking countries? Let us know in the comments below.
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As a bonus to today’s post, here’s a funny video from comedian Conan O’Brien’s trip to Italy with his producer and Italophile Jordan Schlansky, who lectures him on proper etiquette regarding drinking espresso. As you can see, Conan is not a willing student. This video always makes me laugh. Enjoy!