A coffee-holic friend, who is also an eminent writer, had once said “Coffee is like an intravenous drip to me”.
I was initiated into coffee at an early age, on a crisp, winter evening in January. Bismillah’s Shehnahi was flirting with Kajri; silks, brocades and tussars swished around me; roses of various hues adorned bouffants; trinkets of gold designed with pearls, emeralds and diamonds clinked and tinkled; heavily embroidered Kashmiri shawls were thrown over broad stately shoulders of men in dhotis and kurtas; the air was heavy with the scent of rose-water. It was my cousin’s big, fat, Bengali wedding and an ‘expresso machine’ had been set up to welcome the guests. The whooshing, gurgling, steaming machine was a novelty. Needless to say, the children were on their best behaviour in the hope that they would get to taste the thick, sweet, frothy delight that was being churned handed out to all the adults in cups of china.
As they say, the first time is always the best and the worst. The thrill of tasting an adult beverage and burning my tongue at the same time left an indelible mark on my young mind. The first independent cup of coffee, had at a cafe without adult supervision, happened much later by which time ‘expresso machines’ at weddings had been replaced by other novelties of recent years. Espresso was a thick, short shot of coffee served in a small cup and not what we had been given to understand, but I had still remained an ‘expresso’ coffee drinker despite the repeated requests for ‘one black coffee please’.
Black coffee came into my life along with the man I married and Lutyen’s damp, foggy, bitter winter and I fast became a ‘coffee-holic’. But I would religiously make two cups: one cup, a steaming dark amber liquid; and the other a heady mix of instant coffee, steaming hot water, luke warm milk and two sugar cubes. I was still not ready to give up my old faithful way. It is not that I did not try to acquire the taste, but I miserably failed at understanding the subtle, aromatic, bitter taste that the Bee kept pointing out.
As it is with habits, they form, grow roots, and transform into addictions till life throws a new challenge at you. And it was a good six or seven years into my married life that life threw another ‘black coffee challenge’ at me. The Gulf Air lounge with its gilt-edged red sofas and Arabic decor was where we would be spending the next couple of hours before taking our flight from Muscat back to Calcutta. We had officially joined the annual migration of all expatriates away from the beautiful desert city. On each centre table stood a tray with a ‘Dallah‘, an Omani coffee pot, a small silver bowl of dates and some ‘Finjan‘ – Omani coffee cups. In the early days of my stay in the city, I had heard about the traditional Kahwa of the Omanis. My initial impression that Kahwa was the namesake of the aromatic Kashmiri green tea brewed with saffron, cinnamon, cardamom and rose petals was soon dismissed. ‘Kahwa‘ was the Arabic term for coffee that was made from fresh Arabic coffee beans (coffea arabica) that are roasted and ground to a fine powder before they are brewed with water and spices, notably cardamom or cinnamon, and served without sugar, often accompanied by dates. Legend has it that the art of drinking coffee originated in the Arab region and was later passed on to the rest of the world. But my prejudice and my old faithful stood in the way of my experimenting with the rich Arabic concoction.
At the lounge that night, my eyes were heavy with sleep. I needed something to keep me awake before I caught the flight back home. And I was ready to give black coffee another chance, telling myself that I would amply make up for the bitter concoction at the first opportunity. The coffee that I poured into the tiny porcelain cup that I held in my hand was slightly thicker and gave off a faint aroma of cinnamon, which hit my senses with the of the rising steam. The first sip was a mouthful of bitterness and I almost made up my mind to put the cup down. But before the mind could make up its mind to banish Kahwa with the first sip, I had already allowed it to roll down my throat and had bitten into a ‘tamar‘ (date). That moment, the bitter, almost nutty aftertaste, wafting through over the faint rough trace of the Arabic beans suddenly froze the experience for me and branded it memorable. By the time we had gotten into the flight, I had enjoyed four cups of Kahwa and had in the process, forgotten what I had enjoyed so long as coffee. Despite staying awake the following two nights, as a result of the potency of the golden brown liquid, the mind was made up to forge ahead and conquer Kahwa and in turn, allow it to conquer me.
Since then, I have remained conquered. A veritable conquest of coffee. One who has travelled far and wide only to keep coming back to the same dark, aromatic, invigorating liquid, be it as I watched the crowd flow by on a nippy November evening at George the Vth on Avenue des Champs-Elysees, or while soaking in the autumn sun at the roadside cafes of Geneva, or while lounging on the sunny beaches of Phuket, by the clear waters of Pralin or in thatched roofed huts in the dusky interiors of Victoria Island. There is no mistaking the real McCoy. The one thing that is truly black and beautiful.
Can I have a double shot of espresso, please?
A Kahwa pot or Dallah of yore, found in a niche at Nakhal Fort, in the Wilayat of Nakhal, Sultanate of Oman.
Read it on my TOI blog : Freeze Frame