Posted in Food

Chennai Kaapiright

Connect the dots – Coffee, religion, caste system, trade unions ……

South India obsesses about coffee. Ask any one of our coffee drinkers and they would swear that we have been drinking coffee since the times the Gods walked the Earth, and that babies here go from mother’s milk to filter coffee, overnight. Much as we hate bursting this particular bubble, the truth is that coffee came into India fairly recently – in the early 19th century. And when it came, it wasn’t even love at first sight.

Coffee grew in the middle-east, where it was the drink of a small handful of people. But as it gained more converts, religion sat up and took notice. Islam was the first. The Imams decided that any drink that good HAD to be evil, and banned it. However, coffee soon won them over, and a holy Fatwa quickly gave it religious sanction. It became the drink of saints and Sufi mystics. After that, coffee travelled and eventually reached Venice. Now another religion opposed it. This time round, it was Christianity. Should good Catholics drink a ‘Muslim drink’? It seems Pope Clement VIII tried it, loved it and graciously allowed all good Catholics to drink it too.

Coffee Houses soon became the hot and happening places in Europe. This was where all controversial topics were discussed threadbare. Inefficient kings were roundly scolded and corrupt churches were ripped apart. All this made Charles II very nervous and in 1675 he banned coffee houses in England. But by then, even his ministers were so addicted to coffee that the ban had to be hastily withdrawn. Some looked at coffee as a magic potion and believed it could “Expel Fumes out of the Head and cleanse the English-man’s Stomak of Flegm.” Why the average Englishman had all this strange stuff inside him in the first place, no one knows. Women were conveniently kept out of English coffee houses and naturally, they had a very different viewpoint. “This heathenish liquor made our men impotent!” screamed a woman’s petition against coffee. But there was no looking back for coffee.

It is said that coffee came into India through the efforts of Baba Budan. He travelled all the way to Arabia to find salvation – and found coffee. Initially, coffee did not find many takers here. The Brahmins decided to stand their ground against this invidious new drink. So they took to boycotting coffee houses and speaking long and passionately against coffee. But somewhere along the line, they tumbled headlong in love with coffee. Soon coffee became an indispensible part of a Brahmin household and took its place very comfortably among all the other age old rituals. Just look at the way coffee is served in Tamil Nadu; it comes in a steel davara-tumbler with a rim around the edges, unlike coffee mugs. That simple adaptation allowed persnickety drinkers to safely pour hot coffee straight into their mouths, without letting the tumbler touch their lips.

Today coffee purists swear by ’Kumbakonam Degree Coffee.’ What makes Kumbakonam the coffee Mecca? Truth be told, we don’t have an answer. Kumbakonam grows no coffee, is not particularly famous for its milk and the sugar you buy there is just the same as anywhere else. So how did Kumbakonam become the first name in filter coffee? One wonders if it might have anything to do with Kumbakonam being a temple town, which is lined with many Agraharam houses, which are populated by many Brahmins, who perhaps drink way too much coffee?

During the British rule, there was a popular coffee chain called the India Coffee house. It closed down in the 1950’s, leaving its workers jobless. That’s when Comrade Gopalan Nambiar, a well known Trade Union leader took charge and got the coffee shops transferred to workers co-operatives. He gave it a brand new name – Indian Coffee House. It is still going strong with over 400 branches across the country, but none in Tamil Nadu yet.

Starbucks with its 15000 stores worldwide has now opened its first outlet in Chennai. How will it fare here?

There will surely be some indifference, a bit of skepticism, and a lot of comparison. But for all you know, perhaps a day will come when Starbucks too will feature among Chennai’s age old traditions…

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