Thailand: 70 years of traditional brew
• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.
CHACHOENGSAO, THAILAND – “Grandpa” Lee scoops ground coffee into a long sock and slowly pours boiling water through it into a pan. He then decants the rich brew through another stockinglike filter into a tumbler.
He takes an appraising sip and nods. Another cup of kafe boran, or traditional Thai-style coffee, is ready. Customers can drink it straight or syrupy-sweet with lashings of caramel and condensed milk.
Lee Sata, or “Pae” (“grandpa”) Lee, brews coffee the same way he’s done it for 72 years – and in the same cramped plywood shop where he began serving it in 1937.
Coffee lovers from Bangkok, including the rich and famous, flock to Pae Lee’s coffee shop with its six round tables ringed by wooden stools at Klong Suan Market, a century-old riverside bazaar in neighboring Chachoengsao Province.
Wearing a white singlet, the diminutive coffeemaker greets visitors with a thumbs up and a boyish grin before disappearing into the tiny partitioned-off kitchen with its blackened walls to tend to his coffee-making tools: saucepans, cooking pots, and sock filters.
Other customer favorites include oliang iced coffee: It’s a blend of coffee, corn, and soybeans that’s liberally sweetened before being poured into a plastic bag of shaved ice to be slurped with a straw on the go.
“I didn’t plan to make coffee all my life,” Pae Lee says. “But my shop became popular as a meeting place for the local community.” He was born in the shop, sleeps upstairs, and still starts work at 5 a.m. He never takes a day off.
“I love making it,” he says.