As the founder of Nguyen Coffee Supply, Sahra Nguyen knows the power that coffee holds in bringing people together around a specific culture. Through direct-trade relationships with Vietnamese farmers, the company has been bringing Vietnamese coffee culture to America since 2018 — and Nguyen herself, a first-generation Vietnamese American, is a big part of fostering that cross-cultural connection.
Ahead of the Lunar New Year — which, in Vietnam, is known as Tết — Nguyen shares how her love of coffee originated with her family, how she’s celebrating the new year on Feb. 10, and more. Read it all, in her own words, below.
For my entire life, I watched my parents drink coffee every single morning as a ritual, as something that started their day. My parents are refugees from the war, and they came here very young. They escaped in 1978 but arrived in the US in 1980, and they were only 20 years old. They were grinding here as new immigrants in America. But seeing them have a cup of coffee every single morning — to me, it seemed like their little luxury, their little indulgence. They worked 12-hour days, so it was also fuel for their immigrant grind. That’s what first started my love of coffee. It made me think: I want to have this connection and fuel and joy as well.
My love of coffee really grew during the third-wave specialty movement, because I felt so much more connected to different cultures — there was such an emphasis on origins and specialties. And I was like, why don’t I see my culture represented? I thought there was a huge void. Growing up visiting Vietnam very often — my parents always brought me back, so I grew up with a really strong connection to my family and culture in Vietnam — I knew the coffee culture in Vietnam, I knew how different it was. I wanted to share this with other folks in America.
My passion is really trying to make the world a better place by understanding compassion and connection, and coffee just happens to be my channel. It’s been about using coffee to tell stories and share my culture. Sharing culture through my own page or through the company, it’s also about building empathy and humanizing the people behind the product. That’s very important, and that’s why I share things like my Lunar New Year celebrations with others.
It’s a really important time for family: present, past, and future.
Growing up, I celebrated the Lunar New Year in a pretty specific way. My parents live in Boston now, so normally it’s a huge weeklong event with my family. In Vietnam, Tết is such an important time for families to come together, to eat together, to clean together. It’s an important time to connect with our ancestors — we prepare gifts and offerings and meals and then we pray. We burn fake money and fake gifts to send everything we want to our ancestors up in the heavens. It’s a really important time for family: present, past, and future.
This year, I’m unable to spend it with my parents. But I am going to get together with my sister; she’s now married with a kid and I’m married now and we both live in New York. So we’re kind of starting our own New Year’s traditions. We’re going to clean before the day, then cook our New Year’s meals, and we’ll do some rituals.
My favorite thing to eat is this very special traditional sticky rice cake called bánh chưng. It’s filled with mung beans and pork belly, but it is so hard to make. It takes days to prepare and make, because I’ve watched my mom make it. When you build it, the rice is dry — I still don’t know how she does it. You wrap it in banana leaves, and then you have to steam it for like eight hours. Watching my mom make it, when I get to eat it, I feel so honored. It’s how she shows love.
— As told to Lena Felton