Let me confess at the outset that I’m not a coffee aficionado or a tea addict. I have never been to a tea or coffee plantation though I always wanted to travel through the rolling swaths of lush green estates on the Indian or Sri Lankan hillsides, whistling Wordsworth and romancing the brightly-dressed highland lasses tending to dewy bushes. Yes, I have missed those liberating moments.
But I love tea and coffee as much as I fancy a pint of bubbly. All three can equally fire up my creative muse. In the 70s, the tea mama brewed at home never tasted like tea. No doubt she was a great cook, but the brand she provisioned for in her wafer-thin budget was of inferior quality. Besides, most tea brands back then were highly adulterated.
And coffee was certainly out of our reach, making its way to the shopping list only during festive seasons like Onam and Makar Sankranti. As if the Hindu deities give a damn about cafe latte or cappuccino. The coffee powders common men could lay hands on weren’t readily soluble like the ones we use now. They left an ounce of black sludge at the bottom of the glass, making coffee time a nightmarish experience.
While the middle class was denied the luxury of the great tea/coffee flavour, the proletariat got to savour the best of both in Kerala’s idiosyncratic tea shops, a redoubt for the labour who wanted a heavy breakfast before setting out into the sea or paddy fields. They typically ordered either an APP or a FULL — the former being the local slang for HALF glass. Glass tumblers in those days came with the vertical cut design stretching to three-fourth of the container, which ultimately gave birth to Mumbai’s epochal Cutting Chai or Kerala’s APP concepts. A Cutting Chai or an APP meant less in quantity and price but rich in flavour.
The elite never visited tea shops except when their resident cattle struck work or when they wanted to check their luck in monthly lotto results in newspaper columns.
Waking up in a newspaper office every morning, my day in Mumbai typically started with a Cutting Chai outside the corridors of power, or Mantralaya, at Nariman Point. The obnoxious sights of betel leaf stains on the white majestic building could not stop me from watching how the Marathi Bai Saab in white topi infused his concoction with all the flavours from the Western Ghats — from fennel and cardamom to ginger and lemongrass.
Before settling down on the Cutting Chai, a memorable milestone in my coffee journey was my frequent forays, during breaks (read thrown out) from Prof NK Seshan’s (former state finance minister) Shakespeare classes, into the Indian Coffee House in my hometown where I learned the ABC of coffee etiquette.
The aroma of the coffee they ground behind the cash counter would permeate the air in that part of the town. Like the rich smell of coffee you find at the original Starbucks located near the waterfront in Seattle’s Pike Place Market. The hot brew at the Indian Coffee House was served with a froth of class by elegantly uniformed waiters in a white cup and saucer. An experience that would free me up from the shackles of middle class hangups and lift me in a bubble of pretentious aristocracy.
That’s where I learned the comfort of having a hot brew in a cup and saucer. While the Cutting Chai left enough room on the glass to hold it, an aficionado of the South Indian filter coffee would require a pair of gloves to handle its container. Technology is all about making life easier. At least that’s what my son said during his recent work-from-home break from Germany.
“Dad, give up your Cutting Chai culture. You have wasted a lifetime scrubbing the tea pan.” He then ordered a coffee maker on Amazon and showed us how comfort and decoction flowed at the touch of a button.
“Have it neat. No sugar, no milk. Like you taste wine, swirl, sniff, sip and roll it around in your mouth. It then becomes a habit.”
Amazon has since delivered several things that made our life a lot easier, and sedentary — all in a few weeks. But nothing has stopped my weekly outing to a Tamil vegetarian restaurant that serves up the South Indian Filter Coffee, also called the Madras Degree Kaapi or Kumbakonam Kaapi, in the traditional stainless steel davara and tumbler that are too hot to touch. Singapore’s kopitiams deliver hot tea and coffee in easy-to-carry plastic pouches but no make-in-India entrepreneur has thought about innovating the clumsy utensil that delivers the best brew in the world in a way that would ruin your appetite.
A tumbler full to the brim. A coffee-stained froth heaped over the hot brew, leaving no edge to hold. A davara quarter full with the overflow.
“Where the hell do I hold it, Thampi (younger brother)?”
“Like this, sir.” The waiter lifted the tumbler like a robot and placed it back in the davara. “Sir, you can also raise the davara and bring the tumbler to the lips.”
I burned my fingers and spilled coffee every time I tried it. Can’t they give it in a cup and saucer and make my coffee time a memorable event? They have got everything right. Right ratio of coffee and chicory. First degree concoction (hence the name Degree Kaapi). Medium roast. Perfect texture and flavour. Intense aroma that fires up your brain cells. But how do they matter if one needs to burn his fingers to embrace the notes?
“Thampi, it’s so laborious. Can’t you give it in a cup and saucer?”
“Sir, the cup and saucer are to tea as the davara and tumbler are to coffee. Do you drink your beer from a china or your wine from a steel tumbler? It’s the same puzzle. Besides, the Degree Kaapi is not just a cup of coffee, sir; it’s a whole culture, blended with passion and filtered into a little tumbler. Let it start a fire of nostalgia. Enjoy your drink.”
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