Ranjani Iyer Mohanty's Blog

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APRIL 18, 2012 7:55AM

For a Tumbler of Coffee

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The making of coffee is the day’s opening ritual for many families in South India. In my grandmother’s home, Arabica and Peaberry beans were first roasted separately. Then they were mixed and a small daily portion freshly ground using a hand grinder. The grounds would be placed into the upper filter portion of a stainless steel container and this upper portion would be fitted into a lower catchment portion. Boiling water would be poured into the upper half and the whole container would be set aside to wait for the strong concentrate to slowly filter down. A cup of that morning’s freshly boiled milk would be heated in a small pot and about two spoons of the coffee concentrate would be added to the milk, along with a spoon of sugar. Then to aerate the mixture and enhance the flavor, it would all be poured vigorously back and forth between the pot and a stainless steel tumbler several times, before finally ending up in the tumbler and handed to the recipient.


In such an environment, the recently oft-repeated statement in the Western press that India is a nation of tea-drinkers and that Starbucks will bring a coffee-culture to India is simultaneously amusing and annoying. It blithely ignores the fact that coffee has been a staple drink in the southern half of the country for centuries. Starbucks, in a joint venture with the Tata Group, plans to open its first cafes in Delhi and Mumbai, and to have 50 outlets by year-end. Thanks Starbucks – but like bringing coals to Newcastle, wine to France, or apple pie to America, you may find that we have a bit of coffee here already.


The story of coffee’s origin in South India is that it was brought back by a trader from Arabia several hundred years ago. Coffee beans have since been grown in the hills of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Karnataka.


Coffee has been and is an integral part of the south Indian experience, whether travelling or at home. As trains draw into stations (big and small) in south India, young boys run up to the windows with a large kettle of coffee and a shoulder bag of glasses, rapidly shouting “Kapee, Kapee, Kapee”. In many restaurants, aerating the coffee is a performance art, with waiters doing gravity-defying throws of the liquid from one tumbler into another. And coffee is still the first thing offered to any visitor who comes home.


There is even a long-standing culture of coffee houses in India. The Indian Coffee House chain began in the early 1940’s and has spread throughout India. While the largest numbers are in Kerala, there are several prominent ones in Kolkata known to be the meeting places for intellectuals, writers, artists, and their animated exchange of ideas. In New Delhi, the Madras Coffee House, located centrally in Connaught Place, has been a landmark since the 1950’s.


Today there are several national coffee chains such as Café Coffee Day and Barista. Costa Coffee, the multinational coffee company based in the UK, also opened outlets in India several years ago. And this year we’ll have Starbucks. And even though they are said to be bringing coffee to India, they will be sourcing their beans from South India and having it roasted there as well.


But Starbucks is not just another coffee company. It is an icon, an institution, and a lesson in management. A plethora of books have been written about it by academics (e.g., History professor Bryant Simonis’ “Everything But the Coffee”), management gurus (e.g., consultant Joseph Michelli’s “The Starbucks Experience”), Starbucks executives (e.g., CEO Howard Shultz’s “Onward: How Starbucks fought for its life without losing its soul”), and ardent admirers (e.g., Michael Gates Gill’s “How Starbucks Saved My Life”). Its logo is apparently so well known, that the word ‘Starbucks’ is no longer needed on the cup – just the 2-tailed mermaid.


And the Starbucks product in India is not really coffee. What they will be selling is a slice of the cool, young, and urban American life. It will be a smart, slick, Wi-Fi connected, non-alcoholic hang-out space for well-heeled young adults (of whom there are a vast and growing number in India), with sounds of Putumayo world music playing in their ears and visions of Microsoft dancing in their heads. It will also draw an older crowd who have studied or worked in the US for a few years, swear that coffee for them now means only a Starbucks skinny Cinnamon Dolce Latte, and are truly grateful that it will finally be within reach. And it will attract an audience curious about all the hype. In an era of globalization, Indians too want a taste of the global lifestyle. They’ve already tried McDonalds, KFC, and Pizza Hut. Now for something a bit more upscale.


So Starbucks, welcome. With India’s vast and varied population, there is a market for every type of coffee experience. For the full Starbucks experience, some may cruise into a Starbucks and hand over Rs.250 for that famed mermaid paper cup of grande Caramel Macchiato and Rs.100 for an apricot blueberry muffin. They may also have the option to spend an extra Rs.1000 for a stainless steel tumbler with the Starbucks logo. For the Indian experience, some will drive their car to a Café Coffee Day and spend Rs.70 for a china cup of cappuccino and Rs.60 for a hot n’spicy chicken puff. For the authentic desi experience, some will take their scooter to an Indian Coffee House for a Rs.7 coffee and a Rs.8 banana fry. For the al fresco experience, some will cycle or walk to the nearest roadside vendor for a Rs.5 glass of coffee and a Rs.5 samosa. And some others, for the home experience, will just head to Grandma’s for a free tumbler of coffee and a free dosa, both served with love.


(A version of this article was originally published in WSJ.com)


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Another wonderful post...thank you for sharing this inside scoop into another facet of multi-multi-faceted India! It sounds like nothing can top Grandma's home brew coffee, served with love.
Fascinating. I'm a Starbucks fan myself after snubbing it for many years.
Great post. My initiation into coffee happened during my college days in Chennai - a coffee and a cigarette to start the day, a ritual passed on by seniors. It was also around the time when coffeeshops started becoming a 'thing' in the city, aided no doubt by the popularity of 'Friends' among college-goers.

I've always hated that particular subculture, and never could get used to the idea of paying 100-200 rupees for a cup of coffee. Perhaps, my tastes are not as refined as that of others, but the only coffee my body will accept is filter kaapi.

Today, it's a fantastic people-filter when I move to a new place: if a new acquaintance suggests going "for a coffee", I save us both valuable time and energy by politely declining, and avoiding them like the plague for the rest of my life.
Thank you,Ranjani,for this well written insider article on Indian art of living and culture.
When I was in India,I thoroughly enjoyed the morning cup of chai,very strong with sugar and this ever so delicious buffalo milk.
I considered this to be a real treat.
These are very cherished memories for me.
My favorite memory from a (brief) trip to India years ago was getting coffee from the street stands. Dunno if aeration improves the flavor - but watching them pour enhances the experience.
There seems to be no end to the variety in Indian culture! I would never have guessed coffee but, reading about it, it makes sense. I love the ritual you describe and I love the many varieties of coffee makers around the world. I was wishing you had posted a picture and sent myself off to search before whining to you about it. There's one available on ebay - with a pouch of Kaapi coffee for just $14. It may just join my collection.
Ranjani,So sentimental and deeρ thinking and feeling work here.The comρarison of tradition and modernity...the unavoidable age that is outside of our doors..At least in our homes we can be as traditional as we want...At least in my house we stand with the long-standing cultures and traditions..Trying too..I have coffee as my tradition too..and tea...It is my ορening for the eyes and day ritual too..Rated with thanks and best regards.
Thanks everyone for your wonderful and warm comments.