Condensed Milk: A History and Look into Its Cultural Significance

We learn more about condensed milk—which has become an integral part of cuisine in many places around the globe—and offer a Vietnamese iced coffee recipe.


Featured photo by TheUjulala via Pixabay

As a person of Southeast Asian descent, I grew up seeing condensed milk as an everyday ingredient—a pantry staple that could be used in a multitude of ways. Throughout my parents’ home country, the Philippines—as well as other Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam and Cambodia—condensed milk is a common addition to both food dishes and beverages. Ever had Vietnamese iced coffee? If so, you know that the sweet, syrupy taste of condensed milk serves as the perfect counterpoint to the smokiness of dark-roast robusta coffee, creating a bold beverage that packs as much of a punch with flavor as it does with caffeine.

To most, it’s a bit of a mystery how condensed milk, an American invention, came to be such an integral aspect of Southeast Asian cuisine and the global culinary world at large. Today, we’ll trace the history of condensed milk, the ways in which it’s used around the world, and how you can incorporate condensed milk into coffee beverages at home.

A Vietnamese iced coffee in a tall clear drinking glass with a long spoon and long blue straw.
Traditional Vietnamese iced coffee uses condensed milk to balance the bold, smoky flavor of dark-roast robusta coffee. Photo by Frank McKenna via Unsplash.

The Origins of Condensed Milk

Canned condensed milk was first invented in the 1850s by an American newspaper publisher and inventor named Gail Borden. At the time, refrigeration was nearly nonexistent. An alternative to fresh milk was needed—especially for parents looking for safe ways to feed their infants. In fact, the invention of canned milk led to a significant drop in infant mortality in the United States.

Throughout the last few decades of the 1800s, canned milk would become a major product in the Western world. In the 1900s, it became known as a wartime food, serving as a go-to amongst soldiers who needed portable, calorie-packed foods during World Wars I and II. Canned milk would then gradually make its way around the globe, becoming especially useful throughout Southeast Asia and other regions that had little access to fresh milk.

Different Uses of Condensed Milk

In Southeast Asia alone, condensed milk is used in a variety of ways—in baked goods, ice cream, shaved ice, and more. You can find condensed milk in both Vietnamese and Cambodian iced coffee. They both use dark-roasted coffee and, at times, other spices like chicory, cloves, and cardamom. You’ll also see condensed milk in regions outside of Asia: Scotland, Brazil, and the United Kingdom, for example, all use condensed milk in a variety of candies and desserts.

Water is poured from a gooseneck kettle over a phin filter. The filter sits on a clear glass mug and has condensed milk in the bottom. On the table beside it is a clear glass mug with a purple ube latte, which has a rosetta design poured into it. There are potted plants on the table behind the drinks.
Portland Cà Phê’s Vietnamese coffee is brewed on a phin filter. Their slow-drip coffee is pictured here with an ube latte. Photo courtesy of Portland Cà Phê.

Recipe: Traditional Cà Phê Sua Dá

Want to try making cà phê sua dá (Vietnamese iced coffee) at home? All you’ll need is some dark-roast coffee, condensed milk, and ice. I recommend brewing your coffee the traditional way, in a phin filter.

A phin filter consists of three parts: the body (the main cylinder-shaped centerpiece where the coffee grounds go), the filter disk (which goes into the body and lies on top of the grounds), and the lid (which keeps the coffee from losing heat while brewing).


  • 1-1.5 tablespoons of dark-roast coffee (Traditional cà phê sua dá recipes typically use Café du Monde coffee, but we love Portland Cà Phê’s selection of coffees, which founder and owner Kim Dam sources from Vietnam and roasts herself in PDX.) 
  • 2 teaspoons condensed milk (adjust to taste)
  • 1 cup boiling water


Preheat your filter by pouring a bit of hot water through it.

Place your filter above your mug/cup and remove the metal filter disk to place your coffee grounds into the body.

Place the filter disk back on top of the coffee grounds, gently pressing down.

Pour in your boiling water until the filter is filled. Place the lid on top of the filter and let the coffee brew until all of the water has dripped down through the filter.

Stir your condensed milk into your coffee and top it with crushed ice. You can also leave the ice out if you prefer to drink your Vietnamese coffee hot.

A silver phin filter over a clear glass mug with coffee brewed into it, over a layer of condensed milk on the bottom. It sits on a small tray with a sliced pandan waffle in a traditional waffle shape.
Pandan waffles and Portland Cà Phê’s traditional Vietnamese coffee, which uses condensed milk and coffee sourced from Vietnam and roasted by the café’s founder, Kim Dam. Photo by Analy Lee, courtesy of Portland Cà Phê.

Condensed Milk Today

Many cafés like Portland Cà Phê are honoring the historical and cultural significance of condensed milk by incorporating it into café beverages. Today, the ingredient remains a long-standing part of the food and beverage world. It’s a reminder that what we consume today is influenced by centuries of invention and trade.


Emily Joy Meneses (she/they) is a writer and musician based in Los Angeles. Her hobbies include foraging, cortados, vintage synths, and connecting with her Filipino roots through music, art, food, and beverage.

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