I wandered out to do a few overdue chores, protected by a mask and face shield. Afterwards I decided to pay a visit to my usual pre-pandemic haunts. Downtown, between Flora Fountain and the stock exchange, crowds were thin. The bakery I like has been open for a while, and I got all the little things I missed for months; a few pavs, a brun, and a loaf of German bread. The pav is a Mumbai special, fluffy sourdough buns, with a hard crust, probably adapted from a Portuguese ancestral bread. Someone must have written a thesis on its origin, and I would love to read it. The other typically Mumbai bread, the brun, is even more crusty, and is slowly becoming extinct. I love it the old fashioned way: sliced open, slathered with butter, then cut into smaller pieces to savour with tea. I walked into a chain cafe (featured photo). They had removed their tables; everything was to go only. I got my double shot of espresso, and came out on the deserted road to have it.
Life has to start again. But for the first time in five months the disease seemed much closer to us; a couple we know well have tested positive. A dependable survey in Mumbai found that the epidemic has not yet touched more than half the population. That means if we drop all safeguards, the disease will begin to burn through the city again. As yet there is no clear way of managing the disease if it turns critical, and no vaccine. Even after you recover, it may require months of rehabilitation. We don’t even know whether immunity lasts a full year. I guess The Family and I, like most of us, will grope and search for a safe way to socialize in the coming months.
Since Kenya grows its own coffee, I would finish a meal with coffee without giving the order much thought. I should have paid more attention when I ordered one in an Eritrean place. After all Eritrea or Ethiopia are the place where coffee was first domesticated, and it stands to reason that serving coffee will be an elaborate tradition. It caught me by surprise, but it shouldn’t have. This being a restaurant, the initial process of roasting and grinding was done before the coffee came to the table. My first inkling that this would be different when a procession of three people approached the table. One put the cup and sugar bowl in front of me, and another arranged a serving table. The woman then spooned the coffee ground into a little earthen pot, filled it with water and heated it on a flame.
As she poured the coffee into the cup I could get the aroma of good Eritrean coffee wafting from the stream of brown liquid. I admired the elegant earthenware pot, the ebena, from which the coffee was being served. The service ended with an incense holder being placed on the table. My saucer had a little biscuit on it; I later realized that the traditional accompaniment, the himbasha, is not very different. I tasted the coffee, very aromatic and not as bitter as an espresso roast would make it. No sugar was needed, although adding sugar is said to be traditional. I declined a refill, although tradition would have demanded two refills. A nice ceremonial coffee can really round off a trip to Kenya.
I’d got to like the Turkish çay (pronounced chai) so much that I neglected the coffee for the first half of the trip. In Şirince it was impossible to neglect the coffee. Most of the restaurants in the village had tables with the beautiful pattered trays set out with the cups that you see in the featured photo. Some time in the afternoon we decided to sit down at one of these and have a coffee.
I looked inside the restaurant. A couple of old men sat there chatting. In Turkey you would probably suspect something is wrong if a restaurant or cafe does not have a few people deeply engrossed in conversation. It was the second day of Ramazan, which was probably why these two were not nursing glasses of çay. Reassured, I went out and sat down at the table where The Family had already ordered the coffee.
This style of coffee was heated in a bed of sand at the center of the tray. Clouds had come in a couple of hours earlier, and there was a slight drizzle. The day had turned cold, and it was nice to sit at a table which radiated heat. I’d forgotten how hot sand could become. In a short while the coffee started to boil, and we could pour a small shot into the little cups in front of us. We sat at our warm table, nursed the strong and sweet coffee, and waited out the drizzle. The crowd of tourists we’d seen in the morning had disappeared. Perhaps everyone had found a nice cafe to warm themselves in.
Today is Earth Day. It is meant to remind us of the problems we need to solve if we are to continue living healthy and happy lives. “Earth Day Network works year round to solve climate change, to end plastic pollution, to protect endangered species, and to broaden, educate, and activate the environmental movement across the globe,” says the web site of the Earth Day network.
In the last few years, every time I have travelled to a wildlife sanctuary, I’ve seen species after species which could be on the road to extinction. The reason is not hunting or wanton killing, it is just our mindless expansion. So, instead of images of magnificent animals, birds or vanishing trees, I thought it might be good to have a photo of consumption. The featured photo is the dregs of a cup of coffee, which I have coloured green and red. Even this little pleasure has consequences. Multiply a cup of coffee a billion times, one for each coffee-lover in the world, and you have cascading effects through the world.
A search for coffee in Shanghai one morning brought home to me Plato’s theory of forms. Plato famously put forward the notion of ideal forms and our perception of them in terms of what we call todau Plato’s Cave. In this analogy, we live in a cave, and the ideals roam outside; we perceive them only through the shadow they throw on the cave wall.
I saw this small coffee shop and walked into it. There were a few customers waiting at the bar, a few at the small table behind, sipping their lattes. The number of baristas was larger, and they were really busy. I waited at the bar, and eventually someone took notice of me. “May I have an espresso?” I asked. There was a double take. “Ok, have you ordered already?” The girl at the counter asked me. Some gears wouldn’t move in my head. “Uh. No. Can you take this as an order?”
As we talked, her phone pinged multiple times, and each time she would swipe at something on the screen. The mud slowly slid off the cogs of my mind, and the machinery started grinding. This was a place which took orders by some phone app. Customers were walking in briskly, picking up their orders and leaving. I noticed this as my order was entered into a queue. Eventualy my mental machinery noticed that there was no payment being made. So the credit transaction was also on the web. This was truly Plato’s coffee shop. Almost everything was on the web, and I was only seeing the shadow of this commercial venture in the brick and mortar shop in front of me.
Sure enough, when I received my coffee and asked whether they would take cash or card the machinery ground to a halt. About seven people had a conference. “Cash,” was the answer. I didn’t have exact change. There was a hunt for change. Someone had to go out and get change for me. I was beginning to feel sorry that I’d disrupted this smoothly functioning venture by actually walking in off the street. Office goers gave me discreet lookovers as they took their lattes and walked off.
Process automation seems to always exist in the world of ideals. I seldom find project designs which can also exist in our cave of shadows.
Walking about Madurai, I found that people notice you with a camera. Although Madurai is a big draw for tourists, most people are not as blase about tourists as people from south Mumbai. I spotted this trio chatting as they manned a fruit stall and thought I would take a photo quietly. Not possible. They turned their attention to me. It makes for a nice photo, but I can’t decide whether the other photo would have been better.
Nearby was this bakery. I caught this man unawares, but now I’m not sure that this has come out well. I’m a little puzzled by the establishments called bakeries in Tamil Nadu. They are shops which do not seem to be attached to a place where someone bakes. About half the stock is usually unbranded material that a bakery would produce, but the other half is packed biscuits and cakes.
Earlier in the day I’d come across this friendly coffee shop, where several people turned to smile at my camera. I had to be friendly back, so I bought a cup of coffee. It was good.
Everything had gone well. We missed all traffic in Mumbai because we had to reach the airport in the middle of the morning on a holiday. It was the beginning of the Ganesh festival, but it was too early for crowds. The flight was on time. Sathiamoorthy was waiting for us at the airport in Madurai with his car: a clean and well-maintained little thing, just right for the two of us at the back. We were on the highway almost immediately.
Before I was prepared for anything to happen, I saw one of the odd sights that trips usually hand you: an elephant riding a truck. I fumbled for my phone and took a bad shot as we passed by. What was it doing on a truck. Tame elephants just walk from one place to another. Maybe this was being taken too far away for a half day’s walk. It didn’t look unhappy with its situation. We zipped along, and I was fairly sure that we would reach Rameswaram in three hours, just after sunset.
Our luck ran out soon, as we hit a road block. Tamil Nadu has been in a political turmoil recently, with two major party leaders dying. Parties have to keep spirits up in such situations. One party had a campaign in which workers cycled from village to village. They were going to use the same route that we planned to use; so the roadblock. We had to wait until the whole cavalcade passed. The police and the political workers were a friendly lot, so I managed to take some photos.
The Family decided to make use of the stop to get some coffee. Right at the crossing there was a small highway food stall. The usual small snacks, tea, and coffee were available. I looked at the goodies on display and got a hundred grams of wonderfully crisp ragi murukku to go with the coffee. The filter coffee is always the star of the show in Tamil Nadu, and this place was no disappointment. The piping hot coffee was poured into a small cup in a meter long stream for each of us. The aroma, the sweet milky taste, and the jolt of caffeine wake you into the beginning of a holiday.
Unfortunately we were delayed by a couple of hours between the roadblock and a detour. We reached Rameswaram late.
If you need variety in food when you are traveling, then Kerala seems to be the place for you. Perhaps it is the relative prosperity, or perhaps it is the history of trading across the Indian Ocean, that brings so many small eats to Kerala. The little coffee shop that you can see in the featured photo springs from the legendary smuggling feat of Baba Budan. The story that I know is that 500 years ago this pilgrim to Mecca brought back to his home seven beans from Mocha hidden inside his clothes. This is the origin of the Arabica coffee for the cultivation of which the British laid waste to the Nilgiris 300 years later: converting one of the world’s most bio-diverse rainforests into plantations. This roadside shop, with its lovely kitchen, is just one of the modern links in a deep history which began with the cultivation of coffee in Ethiopia more than a thousand years ago.
The humble idli and vada, which, to most of Northern India, is the epitome of Southern Indian food, also seems to have a storied origin. Wikipedia predictably traces the idli back to Hindu kingdoms from 1100 years ago, but admits that most of the modern ingredients of idli are missing from these ancient recipes. The addition of rice, the day-long fermentation, and the steaming are processes inseparable from today’s idli. I found an old book review in The Hindu which claims that the idli, in its modern form, is a hybrid of steamed rice balls brought by early Arab traders to the Malabar coast, and the old tradition quoted by Wikipedia. It is possible that, as K.T. Achaya proposes, the far-eastern trade also brought in the technique of fermentation of food, which got added to this amalgam. The neat little breakfast served on a banana leaf has such a wonderfully mixed parentage!
Soon after the late breakfast coffee is finished, people in Spain seem to begin to look for something to drink. In this season the heat begins to sap your energy already by noon. So a glass of Sangria is never unwelcome. There are as many recipes for Sangria as there are bartenders, so apart from the constant red wine and sour fruits, the proportion of triple sec, brandy and sugar vary widely. The Family had a large variety ranging from a nice bitter pre-lunch drink to a sweetish late-afternoon cooler. I tried the Tinto de Verano a couple of times. It is similar to the Sangria but seems not to have the sugar.
Late in the trip I discovered Cava. When you walk into a restaurant and they offer you a free glass of Cava, it is hard to refuse. Later, as I contemplated asking for a glass of red wine, a waiter came by saying the bottle of Cava had to be finished. Again, an offer hard to refuse. Dry sparkling Champagne-like wines are not my favourite accompaniment to food, but the Spanish weather makes them more acceptable.
In a trip through Spain you will have to make a special effort if you want to miss sherries. I had a fresh tasting Manzanilla while watching the afternoon sun baking the walls of the Alhambra. In less exotic surroundings I tried out a nuttier Amontillado. I did put in an effort to avoid this and try the regular wines instead.
My trusty fall-back was the Vino Tinto, typically a Rioja or a Ribero del Duero. The ones I liked best used the grape known as Tempranillo (aka Tinto Fino), often mixed with small amounts of other varieties. A few places had Riojas made with Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz (Syrah), which also turned out to be interesting and worth trying. I was pleasantly surprised by Granada wines. They have recently been awarded the Designation of Origin (DO) status which protects their special local character. My exposure to Spanish wine is less than two weeks old. It has been a wonderful learning experience.
Interestingly beer is a common drink in Spain. It seems that Spain is the forth largest producer of beer in Europe. I found this surprising, given the deep roots wine has in the culture. The beer of Spain is light, and had in small quantities. I ordered my first beer on a blazing afternoon in Seville, and it came in a small 20 cl glass. San Miguel 1516 is a common brand, bitter and light. I was told to try the Alhambra 1925. It is very individual, and a little heavier. The bottle is very distinctive, as you can see from the featured photo.
I wish I had found good teas in Spain. There are many tisanes, but I love aromatic black teas. This is not a Spanish drink. I’m sure there’s much more to find. I cannot possibly have explored every drink in such a vast country within two weeks.
When we emerged from the subway to the promenade of the Olympic Green, I wanted some coffee. There were a couple of convenience stores near the exit, but no hot coffee. We walked further: a ticket office with cold drinks, but no coffee. The promenade was lined with kiosks selling cold drinks and sausages, but no coffee. Eventually we settled on the most popular drink in the place, which was yogurt out of a pot (see the photo).
We saw many families out together: parents, child, and one or two grandparents. Often one of the adults could be seen carrying a big bag of food. The drinks would come from the kiosks.
Over the next few days we discovered that this was one of the differences between Shanghai and Beijing. Shanghai has coffee everywhere, but the main tourist spots in Beijing have no coffee. In this Beijing is more representative of China. Coffee is largely imported, and costs much more than tea.