Are we headed for coffee shop wars in the months ahead? I can only rub my hands in glee. After having to suffer years of weak milky coffee, cups with lids that don’t shut, surly baristas who don’t understand your orders, it is time for a shake up in the market. Starbucks is coming, and it is welcome.
The Swadeshi Jagran Coffee Nazis of United Bharat will of course frown and swear, ‘frothing’ that we are a country which should be exporting our filter kaapi, not bringing in foreign brands here. They will talk about the history of India’s coffee plantations, its labour force that will be put out of work (won’t be), and the aroma of Indian Arabica with chicory compared to the bitter Western blends. We will soon need UN inspectors here to mediate between the coffee shop kind and the swear-by-your-home-blend variety.
Most of us are quite used to not even being asked how we would like our coffee. When we visit homes, milky coffee with sugar is the default option, unless you have requested for a black coffee. But black coffee invariably comes with some unsolicited health advice. Thanks to Baba Ramdev and television health shows, everybody is an Ayurveda guru now: “Black coffee will give you acidity.” “Are you pitta or kapha? Oh my God, then you must eschew coffee completely. Drink coconut water. It is God’s own drink.”
Of course coconut water is healthier. Pure water is the healthiest. Fasting is very good too. Eat fruits and raw vegetables. Just do whatever pleases you. Leave me to my coffee, please. South Indians are very opinionated about their brews, just like they are about their sambar pudi. It is a regional thing. Like Punjabis are fanatically possessive of recipes of their saag and maah-di-dal and Bengalis of their chingri malaikari.
But it is only a coffee addict who would know how much passion and perseverance is needed to get that perfect cup of coffee to set the day going. And then when the day is falling into the arms of dusk and sapping you of energy and you need to get through a few more hours of work done before wrapping up, you need one more robust push. That comes in the black magic in a cup. Some like it with milk, or with sugar. That is fine too.
All the coffee that we drink — the instant variety, the filter kaapi, or the ones at Barista or Café Coffee Day — comes from South India. That is probably set to change as Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts and Krispy Kreme open their outlets in India.
I once had a dark roast in Istanbul that kept me awake for more than 24 hours. Served in a dainty ornate cup, that lethal shot dehydrates you instantaneously. In neighbouring Cyprus, coffee drinking is for lazy afternoons, done over gossip and much laughter. Here the cups look suspiciously Turkish but you dare not say that, or you will get a withering look. They have a border issue with Turkey similar to the one we have with Pakistan.
In East Asia, coffee drinking still seems out of place. Their tradition leans towards tea drinking. Europe has its cafes where it is a sheer joy to just sip a large cup, nibble on a cake as you read a book or watch the world go by.
In America, ordering a cup of coffee is a science in itself. And we will soon have to learn that, now that the chains are entering India. Haven’t we already learnt how to order pizza the ‘right’ way? We give our address and phone number, and then the pizza details: size, thickness, toppings, coupons — exactly the way the chains want us to. Try changing the order of things and see how confused your order taker becomes.
So include these terms in your vocabulary now: tall, grand, venti not small, medium, large. Decaf (cheating), Macchiato (is not a sword), Latte (for plump people), hazelnut cinnamon sprinklers (spoiler alerts), Mocha (go drink Bournvita) café au lait (coffee with steamed milk).
What kind of milk do you want? Imagine being asked that! If you don’t specify, you will get full fat. So choose. Between half and half, soya, organic, foam and cream.
It has ‘bean’ a long wait for efficient coffee shops. More competition means more choice. And better service. Why wouldn’t I love that as an avid coffee drinker?
Smita Prakash is Editor, News at Asian News International. You can follow her on twitter @smitaprakash
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