The Tribune - Spectrum


, February 24, 2002
Time Off

Of coffee, tea and cultivated taste
Manohar Malgonkar

VIJAYARAJE Scindia told me how once, when she was on an Indian Airlines flight on which General Cariappa was a fellow-passenger and breakfast was being served, she heard the General say to a stewardess: "Miss, if what you’ve given me is coffee, could I have some tea, please? But then if this is tea, I’d like some coffee."

That request, if it smacks of a lofty sarcasm and even a no-nonsense, military brusqueness; it also shows the General as a man of a broader all-India culture than most of us are. Even though he was a dyed-in-the-wool Kodugu, which is famed as the home of Indian coffee, and himself the owner of a coffee plantation, he was a man of the world, too. If the coffee served by the nation’s airline was not recognisable as such, he was quite prepared to drink tea with his breakfast.

How many Indians who come from the deep south would be so accommodating? India’s population is divided. In the north live the tea drinkers. The south is the land of coffee. The Krishna river is the dividing line. There is not much hands-across the river tolerance between the two sides, and people like the General, a south-of-the-border coffee devotee, willing to put up with Indian Airlines tea, are more the exception than the rule.

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Which is not a reflection on the quality of the beverages served by Indian Airlines. It is just that all over the world both coffee and tea are made differently. What we’re offered in other people’s houses, let alone in distant lands, never tastes like the coffee — or tea — that is our home brew.

For instance, to the people of the south such as the General — or myself — coffee is made from freshly roasted grounds in what is called an Udipi filter. The brew, the colour of wine and exuding a rich aroma, is poured into the cup up to no more than an inch from the bottom. Then the cup is filled with boiling hot full-cream buffalo milk, poured from a height so that it builds up an inch-thick layer of light-brown froth. This froth is then broken with generous spoonfuls of sugar and stirred gently.

That is Mysore coffee, fit for kings! Anything else that goes by the name instant, espresso, Cona, Mocha, Columbia...well — can I have tea instead?

In Rome and Milan, they actually drink the sort of concentrate that comes out of the Udipi filter — weapons grade — I’m sure you can use it to stain wood. And Mocha, which the oil-rich Arabs drink in thimble-glasses while watching belly-dancers in coffee-houses, too is a bitter brew — sarascenic. You drink it at your own risk. Good luck!

Coffee is also America’s wake-up cup, breakfast beverage and, above all workplace tonic. Tea, they have always been a little resentful of: after all, they had once gone to war against England as a protest against the tax on tea sent from England. Even today, they don’t seem to be able to bring themselves to so much as look at a tea leaf. That’s why all the tea that finds its way into American homes is concealed in little bags made of paper. The bag is placed at the bottom of a paper cup into which boiling water is poured. That is their tea, a brew which must have a high concentration of stewed paper. It is usually drunk straight, without either sugar or milk. In summer, this tea is actually drunk cold — with ice-cubes added.

At that, tea-bag tea in a paper cup still tastes quite like our tea when you add sugar and milk — and American milk is very good, almost as rich as our buffalo milk.

In our Third World conditions, we never know how the coffee or tea we’re offered is going to taste. It differs from house to house. But in America, they know exactly what they’re going to get. This is because both beverages are made in machines, They’re small or large boilers scientifically assembled and artistically packaged. When the green light comes on the coffee — or tea — is ready. Every machine claims that it makes the perfect cup of tea — or coffee. Perfect or not, what they produce is also what the other machines produce. The consumer can’t tell the difference.

To be sure, even in America, there are those who’re not fond of machine-made coffee, and prefer to brew it in the old fashioned way. John Steinbeck, who spent a month or so touring all over the United States in a sleeping van, devoted a lot of time and thought to the brewing of a cup of coffee to his liking — on the gas cooker in his caravan. His secret for bringing out the full flavour of coffee beans was to put a couple of eggshells in the coffee as it simmered. But on special occasions, he gave his coffee some added ‘authority’ by pouring into it a cupful of Bourbon whisky.

It is well-known that both tea as well as coffee are stimulants. People get hooked on to them as much for their taste as for their effect on the senses: to enhance alertness, to keep awake, to make their thoughts flow, to make them respond to stimuli more imaginatively. Both are classified as drugs. But they must be the gentlest and most civilised of drugs. Over-indulgence in either cannot be inebriating; and still less is there a danger of anyone dying of an overdose.

A Scandinavian Monarch, Olaf, actually carried out an experiment to determine whether coffee was poisonous. He ordered that a prisoner who was sentenced to death should be given no other liquid but strong coffee with his normal prison diet. The jailor had to keep a record of how the treatment was affecting the prisoner.

For a year or so, the jailor had nothing to report because, apparently, the prisoner seemed to continue in good health. Then, one day the jailor died. Whether the experiment was continued by his successor is not clear because not long afterwards, King Olaf himself died. One hopes that the prisoner was finally paroled, or at least allowed to drink something other than jail coffee.

Today coffee and tea are everywhere. Tea is drunk in Tibet — they add salt and gobs of butter to it. Bandits roving in gangs in Patagonia, Arctic explorers, Himalayan climbers, take their tea-break or coffee-break as do office-workers in Sydney or Sao Paulo. In Kabul, there were still roadside tea stalls after the Taliban had fled.

Tea, came from China, where they called it what we Indians do to this day, cha. It was already a high-fashion drink in England when the Mughals still ruled us. We didn’t so much as begin to drink tea till well into the mid-19th century when the British began their plantations. It caught on like a prairie fire only in the 20th century.

Coffee originated in Abyssinia. The Arab traders took it to their land, and called it Kahwa, or wine, and, so they say, drank it for its taste but also for its sense-deadening qualities — or intoxication. And this must have been enough reason for the Mullahs to ban it, on the sound principle that anything that is remotely enjoyable must be sinful, too. But coffee held its own over fatwas. The Arabs kept drinking it surreptitiously and it even spread into Turkey, which may be said to have invented the institution known as a coffee-house. Ultimately, the ban was either lifted, or just allowed to fall into disuse.

The very fact that those tea-stalls in Kabul escaped Taliban’s zeal for forbidding pleasures shows that they, too, frequented those tea stalls. And addiction either to tea or coffee, just in the way we have been brought up to consuming it, is not easy to shake off. Coffee is not coffee, or tea, not tea, unless it is made our way.

Now and then I play host to visitors from America — people from my own calling, or from some university, or the film world — and as much, of cultivated tastes. As a rule, they’re happy with Indian food, and put up gamely with the peanut butter or baked bean conjured by my cook from local ingredients. But when it comes to the champagne of Indian coffee, made in the Udipi filter and of full-cream buffaloe milk, the usual response is: "Could I have tea instead?"


This feature was published on February 17, 2002