In the U.S. at 21, I thought I’d understood the coffee universe. There was the instant Nescafé and Bru widely available in India, there was the South Indian kaapi which I loved, and then there was American ‘cawfee’ (with an anuswar after ‘caw’, so actually cawn-fee) that I’d had in my college cafeteria and in various people’s houses. Moving to New York City after graduation from a small college in Vermont, my visa allowing licensed vagabondage, I had no idea what lay in store.
Rapidly I discovered proper espresso and its Cuban variation, café con leche, which was as close as you could get to strong, milky Gujarati tea but in a coffee avatar. Wires taking their time to join up in my brain, I initially had no inkling how this wondrous potion was brewed or that you could produce it in your own kitchen. It was only when I moved into a shared apartment in the still very rough Lower East Side in Manhattan that I achieved java-nirvana.
My neighbour Angel
My flatmate was away on vacation, and I knew better than to try and decipher his kitchen stuff, which was like a different steel and enamel language, even in that rudimentary cupboard of a space. However, the next morning my doorbell rang. “Hi there, I’m Angel! Like Angel, but the ‘g’ is an ‘h’ in Spanish, so it’s Anhell! I’m your neighbour! Lou told me to check on you while he’s away. Would you like some coffee?”
It was a hot August day and the one thing I craved was a cup of that wondrous Cuban coffee. My wallet, though, was thin, money only due a couple of days later, and I certainly couldn’t justify the $1.25 one would have to spend on a con leche. “Er, I’d love to... but do you know a place nearby?”
“Place? Oh, no, no, no, I mean come to my apartment and I’ll make us some coffee.” Just across the hallway was the door of Angel’s mirroring tenement hovel. I had no idea what kind of coffee I was being offered but I wasn’t about to quibble. Angel’s kitchen got direct sunlight from the east and was thus much better lit than mine. I could see the light glinting off an aluminium contraption as Angel primed it.
“Have you had Puerto Rican coffee? I hope you like it?” “Umm, I’ve had Cuban...” “Oh! Same thing! Our blends are just a little bit better, but it’s all Latin American coffee, much better than gringo coffee, which is, frankly, undrinkable!” Till then I had been quite alright with my elevation from the plastic horrors of Nescafé to gringo coffee but now my life was about to change, bumped up one huge step closer to heaven.
The coffee-maker that Angel was using was designed by an Italian called Alfonso Bialetti in 1931. With the spread of coffee in Europe, the Italians had come up with various devices. One of the best wheezes they’d discovered was that, rather than drip hot water, if you punched steam through coffee grains confined in a small ‘cage’ you got this amazing emulsion of strong, complex taste they decided to call espresso .
From the beginning of the 20th century, Italians began drinking this espresso caffe in tiny thimbles, knocking back several a day. They also added frothy milk to the liquor, inventing something called cappucino , which was very different from the French café au lait (the Hispanic café con leche meaning the same thing, ‘coffee with milk’).
For a time, most coffee drinking was done in cafés, the idea being to get out of the house and socialise with friends. Gradually, people also wanted to drink it at home. This was impossible, as the monsters that produced the espressos were huge and expensive.
Various inventors tried to make home-brewing pots, most notably the Napoletana, on which I suspect our Southie kaapi- maker is based, but there was no easy way to work up enough steam to get the proper espresso hit.
Through trial and error and the use of aluminium — till then not a metal associated with home or kitchen use — Bialetti came up with this device, which is now known as a Moka pot or a Bialetti.
Alfonso apparently got the idea from watching how washerwomen used a massive machine to whirl hot soapy water from a container below, up through a funnel, to spread into a compartment above that contained the clothes to be washed.
So, instead of the steam forming above the coffee cage and being pushed down through it, Bialetti created a chamber where the right amount of steam was formed just below the cage and pushed up. To the cage, Bialetti added a funnel, which was the only pathway for the steam to escape.
Expressed through the coffee grains, the steam, now coffee-laden, still needed to keep rising, so there was another, far more machined funnel, closed off at the top but with two slit-vents just below. As the steam moved away from the source of heat it cooled back down to liquid form and oozed out of the vents. It was simple and effective, it took the mystique away from the monster café machines, it was Italian jugaad at its most brilliant.
The first Bialetti looked like a pair of squat, cubist pomegranates sitting on top of each other. There was a little protrusion of wood on the upper bit, which was the handle. The problem with this was two-fold: the gas flames curled up around the bottom pomegranate and the handle was too stubby so it was easy to burn your fingers. Bialetti changed the bottom bit, making it look like a spreading octagonal skirt and mirrored it for the upper chamber, which took care of the flames. To this Alfonso added a bakelite handle, which makes the classic moka pot resemble an irate washerwoman with her fist on her waist, her elbow sticking out.
I have been responsible for many of these handles melting into strange Salvador Dali shapes. It’s what happens when you leave the moka on the gas and go down to argue with the neighbour about your parking spot. Otherwise, the moka is a foolproof machine, easy to use, simple to maintain, and completely indispensable in destroying the enemies the morning throws at you, just like the Soviet T-34 tank of WWII.
When I first brought back one of these moka pots to Calcutta, (a 3-cup size), my strictly-veg mother looked as though I’d brought some dead animal into her house. Everyone soon got used to it, but I was the only one anyone knew who had to have his coffee made in this infernal machine. By the mid-90s, as more people returned from a certain kind of education abroad, the moka pot was no longer an oddity. By the time I moved to Delhi in the late 90s, many people were making their Devans blends in similar machines and it even had Indian and Chinese versions.
In Europe too, other manufacturers got into the act and designer versions began to appear. I found myself with a growing collection of moka pots, and nothing, not the proliferating coffee chains, nor availability of electric espresso makers nor the ones with those horrible plastic suppositories, have tempted me to do away with them.
The columnist and filmmaker is author of The Last Jet-Engine Laugh and Poriborton: An Election Diary . He edited Electric Feather: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories and was featured in Granta .
The bakelite handle makes the classic moka pot resemble an irate washerwoman with her fist on her waist, her elbow sticking out
Alfonso Bialetti apparently got the idea from watching washerwomen at work