Life

Coffee and steamed milk

I love coffee. My brother likes coffee. My parents like coffee. Coffee runs in our veins.

In the morning, mum would wake up early to make coffee, a big batch so everyone could have a cup and she could have two. Vietnamese coffee was not make with a coffee machine. You didn’t pour tons of grind onto a filter paper and press a button. To make a big batch of Vietnamese coffee, you took a small amount of grind, made a batch then waited to make another. We used a phin, which was a little manual espresso maker.

Credit: Phuc Long Cafe

The smell of coffee lingered in the air, always waking up memories. When I was little, kids were not allowed to drink coffee. I just sat there watching dad and mum drinking it. Then I got a little older, after begging, mum would let me take a sip here and there. The time came when I was allowed to drink coffee, just freely allowed. Then I dived into the deep end.

I drank coffee in the morning to wake up. I drank coffee at night to stay up. I drank coffee in the afternoon just because I liked the taste. I drank espresso. I drank Vietnamese coffee. I drank Turkish coffee with cinnamon. And I made a killer, professional Italian latte.

Years of drinking coffee gave me enough knowledge to land a job as a barista without ever working as a barista before. That was how I learned to make a killer, professional Italian latte. Coffee would always smell like coffee, though some coffee was a little different with its little extra blend. The thing I learned from the job was hot steam also had a smell. I pours cold milk into a metal cup, stick the steam wand inside, turned the knob to let hot air ran out and I swirled the cup to make magic milk foam. The machine I used was a manual old school espresso maker. I had to learn how to swirl, move and hold the metal cup so the steam wand could puff up the right amount of air to the right spots within the milk to make it foamy the way it should. Starbucks used fancy automatic machine that could do all that with the press of a button and the barista wouldn’t have to learn how to steam the milk the right way.

When I first learned to steam milk, I got the milk too close up on the steam wand. It splashed all over. Then I kept it too far low, and the milk kept getting hotter but barely foamed up. I have learned to smell the hot steam. When the steam wand was above the milk surface level just enough to let me smell the clean, urging smell of hot splashing air, then that was where the wand should stay. I got through dozens times a day making the perfect steamed milk by smelling how strong the hot air could get. The one skill got me throughout my years of grad school.

Working 10 hours a day then school then homework, little sleep, long days were the days of my grad school. It was worth it, just tough. Now, every time I thought about those days of my life, I thought of the smell of hot steam air mixing with a faint smell of warm milk, and a strong coffee brewing in the back. I never knew how to describe to people how the hot steamed air smell like. I just knew it smelled like the good old days of working hard, being young and aiming high.

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