Thursday, 23 April 2020

Whipping Up A Storm

Like some under this partial lockdown, I've taken to whisking up the viral Italian-sounding dalgona coffee popularised by Korean actor Jung Il-woo, who tried it in a coffee shop in Macau and talked about it on TV back home.

The name comes from Jung's opinion that the beverage reminded him of dalgona, a type of Korean honeycomb toffee. But this Internet sensation isn't Korean or from Macau. Probably not even Italian. And to my ears it's not dal-go-na but more like TAE-go-na.

A little dive into the dalgona rabbit hole reveals clues that the possible origins of this frothy beverage might be in Europe (the Greek-style frappé) or the Indian subcontinent, where this beaten coffee is known as phenti hui or phitti hui. As soon as the dalgona craze broke, some observers from the latter eye-rolled the same way we Southeast Asians do at some Food Insider videos.

I won't regurgitate all the fruits of my research here, but had things been different, we might also be calling this beverage "Chow Yun-fat coffee" or 發哥咖啡.

The guy who runs the coffee shop in Macau and makes this frothy coffee briefly became famous after making a cup for the veteran Hong Kong actor, who was said to like it. The proprietor of Hon Kee, Leong Kam Hon, learnt how to make this beverage from a foreign couple whose nationality he's unsure of. Presumably, this is the same coffee shop Jung Il-woo stopped by. What's remarkable is that Leong uses a spoon.

But I'm here to talk about my dalgona experience.

What's nuts about this recipe is not that only three ingredients are involved but the sheer amount of them, specifically the coffee and sugar. If I took a glass of dalgona coffee on Saturday morning my weekend won't end until Monday night. It's THAT potent.

My first attempt with an electronic mixer failed because I only used about a teaspoon (and maybe a teaspoon and a half at most) of coffee and sugar - I quit my regular coffee habit due to my gastric and, recently, my anxiety. I had better results with elbow grease, i.e., a small whisk and my decades-old mug or, once, a ceramic rice bowl.

Tipping the bowl at an angle made the small amount of coffee "deeper" than it is, making it easier to whip. The foam was so stiff I could invert the mug or bowl over my head and the coffee would stay there.

The texture presented a challenge when drinking with the layer intact. It would float above the milk like a raft while the milk flowed into your mouth from underneath. The foam is supposed to be mixed with the milk a little, so you get something fluffier than your average latte.

When using less coffee and sugar than prescribed, a small whisk and a small vessel make more sense. I watched, amused, while someone from Buzzfeed's Tasty spent about 17 minutes, off and on, whipping up a sweat with a sceptre-sized whisk and a helmet-sized bowl. All I needed was about six to eight minutes, but perhaps it was the difference in portions.

The amount of water seemed to be key as well. Too much and it'll take longer to come together, or not at all. Too little and you get a viscous but sort of aerated toffee, though not something you'd invert over your head for a few seconds.

This is not a beverage to wind down with after a long day. All that caffeine and sugar make it strictly a morning pick-me-up for people with time to kill. And after all that exercise and coffee you're likely to get wound up for the rest of the day.

I guess I understand why it's so popular. Like a magic trick, it's something anyone can learn and do, and the results are brag-worthy on social media. When one is stuck at home with little to do and feeling unproductive, a successful dalgona coffee gives one a sense of accomplishment.

But given the return on investment ... I wouldn't make this a regular thing, even with power tools. And even though I use less than a tablespoon of coffee, it's still a lot of caffeine at one go for me. Minutes after my last mug I was sweating a little, which never happened before.

22/06/2020  Two months sure fly by in a blank or two of an eye, don't they?

Against my better judgement, I've been whipping up a dalgona more often than I should. Once I figured out that the foam forms faster and better when using less water or following the recipe to the letter.

When the whisk starts "pulling" the mixture when stirring or whisking, it's halfway there. Whisk or stir a bit more vigorously to achieve your preferred consistency.

Sometimes I stop when the dalgona looks like dripping toffee because I'd stir or fold some of it into the milk anyway, like how some might do phenti hui. But often, I go on for two more minutes on high speed. I whip it inside a mug and push down any splashed coffee on the sides with a small silicone spatula.

No point whisking further because by then you won't feel your arm any more and you might need it afterwards. So when the foam is stiff enough to form peaks, you can stop whisking because you've reached peak dalgona.

...If you know me and if you're reading this in KL you should have seen that coming from Sekinchan. Pay. Attention.

I also add salt, along with cinnamon and nutmeg or vanilla extract for something different. Salt in coffee isn't new. It cuts down the bitter tang, though it forms a saline layer on top, probably if not mixed well.

Despite the strength of the coffee, the cinnamon and vanilla come through. The nutmeg, not so much. Attempts with pandan leaf powder failed but I wonder if I should resort to artificial essences.

Some make the dalgona foam and keep it refrigerated for future use, but I wouldn't bother. I bottled some but the coffee would meld into each other, leaving a fragile tuft of foam on top. Isn't "drink it fresh" part of the novelty?

Using warm or hot milk is also fine. I heat mine with a water bath inside an open stainless steel shaker. The heat releases more of the spices' aroma, and each day starts better with a warm drink.

Strange to get so used to whipping instant coffee after doing it almost daily.


Post a comment

Got something to say? Great!