A tale of two cuppas

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The appeal of coffee and tea seems to lie not in their taste or their health benefits or, for that matter, any rational reason. These beverages are insidious by nature — they acquire your loyalty in subliminal ways and simply proceed to loiter in your life as ineffable habituations.

The caffeine habit is like Life. You don’t know how and why it came to be, but it kicks in every morning.

For years, there has only been one kind of coffee for me — the one that splashed out thick, thin or transparent, from the machine at the canteen of the office I worked in for nearly 24 years. Being a die-hard loyalist of canteen coffee may be blasphemy but my habit of one coffee a day was born and bred at the office and, now that I no longer work there, has virtually disappeared since.

Neither a tea- nor coffee-imbiber was I, but those were the only hot beverages the canteen served besides milk. I had given up drinking milk as a 12-year-old despite my grandmother’s protestations. My family consumed both tea and coffee, but neither they nor I expressed any interest in an alternative beverage. At 22, I tried some tea at my friend’s tea estate in Valparai, and my brother, then of a tender age, remains scarred by the memory of my facial expression. Somewhere along the way, I must have tried coffee too, and plumped for tea as the lesser of the two evils.

Work schedules changed, and so did tea-time companions. One suggested I ought to have the coffee rather than the tea, it was so much better after all. A gingerly sip, and then a few more, and I switched loyalties.



At home, though, we weren’t — neither the spouse nor I — tea-coffee people. The spouse grew up in a largely tea-coffee-less household — one parent had eschewed it, concluding that it was a vice. Like me, the spouse too did not care for milk. We did not stock any coffee or tea, nor milk on a regular basis. Guests staying over had to make do with instant coffee. If we forgot to stock it when they visited, particularly fussy guests would have to make do with a cup from the kiosk on the pavement outside our house. Other guests, such as Mother, would come bearing coffee powder and coffee filter. We did stock sugar. Essentially, if I did not go to work, I did not crave coffee.

Soon enough, coffee’s attraction as a headache-relief solution revealed itself. Gradually, I began experimenting with a few brands of instant coffee at home. None matched up to my canteen’s — none relieved the pounding as well as it did; that, or a pill. I could never get them to taste like the office coffee. Not the filter coffee at several hoary old Chennai restaurants, nor that from the hands of others’ mothers and grandmothers. The less said about posh-café coffee, the better.

Had I no sense of taste, discernment? I occasionally reviewed food festivals and wrote about food for my newspaper’s weekend supplement. How then could my standards for coffee remain stuck at the canteen? How was it that the professionally-prepared filter coffee from Woodlands or Apuurva Sangeetha or Saravana Bhavan could not match up to the inconsistent concoction that poured out of the office canteen’s machine?



Even as I gave up on seeking the reason behind my unrefined taste in coffee, a couple of years ago, our Uncle, an exacting senior citizen, came to live with us. Two glasses of tea marked his morning and evening. We would buy the most visible brand of tea on our supermarket’s shelf, until, after a few months, he asked us why we were buying that brand, wouldn’t our guests think we were being cheap? We had no idea! It was a while before we could find a pack that expressly said it contained leaf tea.

I may not have craved coffee outside the office, but this tea, light and fulfilling at once, had me looking forward to the mornings many a time. Uncle passed on his recipe — add 1.5 tbsp of tea to half a teacup of water, heat until bubbles form on the edges (any longer, and the water wouldn’t taste so good), strain into a cup, add sugar, two tbsp of milk, stir and enjoy. Sweet-toothed Uncle adds 2-3 spoons; I worry for my health with 1.5. I add more milk, till the colour is just short of pale brown, remove myself to my sofa, place the cup on one of a selection of coasters presented to me over the years, and rue the formation of yet another inessential habit even as I savour the brew.

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