India is justly famous for its chai – known in Starbucksland by the just-in-case-you-didn’t-get-it-the-first-time, Babelicly echoful moniker “Chai Tea Latte” – but in South India, coffee rules the streets. It is both repast and entertainment, as coffee-wallahs (how do you say “barista” in Tamil?) serve “meter-long coffee,” so called because the dense shot of “filter coffee” and sugary boiled milk are mixed cup-to-cup at full arms’ length. (Not all practitioners achieve the dramatic lengths depicted in my photo, above.)
As if to remind their patrons of the difficulty of this trick, the coffee stalls serve their drinks in the traditional steel-tumbler-and-steel-saucer combination, thereby daring one to further cool the scalding beverage by repeatedly pouring it from one to the other. The balmy South Indian climate does little to dissipate the heat, however, and most customers appear satisfied if their dexterity allows them to escape second degree finger burns.
There is a strange moment of recognition when first tasting South Indian coffee; and it is not that you are, in fact, drinking coffee. It is that you’ve discovered the source for the essence of those sweet, creamy, “coffee flavored” hard candies.
The sad trend in South Indian coffee is that the “filter coffee” tradition is giving way to instant Nescafe. Still, the best coffee stands do it right – like my favorite, at the corner of Rangapillai Salai and M.G. Road. And this soothing, digit-scorching experience generally costs about Rs. 6 (about $0.15 at the current, lousy exchange).
While we are on the subject, here’s a link to a piece I wrote a few years ago tangentially involving South Indian coffee. It takes place at the legendary Indian Coffee House, which featured in Yan Martel’s entertaining novel, The Life of Pi. Like most things worth preserving in Pondicherry, unfortunately, the ICH tradition has been forced to yield to the greed and corruption of what passes for government in Pondicherry. The establishment has recently been uprooted from its wonderful old building, which local politicians want to replace with yet another ugly, new, massive concrete building. The Public Works Department supported its eviction order with an unsupported declaration that the building was structurally unfit and irredeemable; and yet a subsequent, independent study by the Indian Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) found the construction to be absolutely solid.
O’ for the days of filter coffee, beautiful architecture, and people who appreciated the differences these things make to the quality of our lives.