Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Coffee in a Chai Nation: Delhi to Chennai

 wall poster at Chaayos chai cafe in Gurgaon, India; photographed by me
I hail from cities that are coffee-obsessed – Toronto, Ottawa, Oxford (less coffee, more tea admittedly), and Chicago. These origins explain why coffee punctuates my every day rather than tea. Living in India for extended research work has thus meant a huge sacrifice, because the coffee here -- in this Chai Nation -- generally sucks. So that has implied I simply shift to chai, which has been no less wonderful with which to wake up, work and ponder, and of course gab with friends both old and new.  Coffee has nonetheless etched its way into my stay in India, and here I will talk about three cups of Madras filter coffee that have been particularly special.

Coffee and function

Coffee cleans out my pipes each morning. Coffee is synonymous with break-time during the work day. And coffee helps me burn the midnight oil to meet deadlines or realize eureka moments. Coffee is also a companion, sometimes an accessory (an accessory, yes; see Starbucks littered throughout the Devil Wear Prada), and frequently a security blanket for enjoying the company of yourself in public (because hanging out with yourself begs some form of consumption – for better or worse -- such as listening to music, reading, or drinking coffee). 

courtesy of

Most significantly, coffee is that bonfire over which ideas are exchanged that lead to new ventures, and over which bonds are formed between new friends and lovers. Coffee is thusly featured in an episode of my beloved food history documentary series, the Supersizers Go… Restoration.

courtesy of

My coffee origins

I was born and raised in Toronto which is swimming with its dirt cheap Tim Hortons chain, though I much prefer organic offerings that are admittedly pricier such as Jet Fuel in Cabbagetown and Bulldog Coffee in the Gay Village. While working in Ottawa, Bridgehead was my main squeeze. The coffee I had while studying in Oxford was not terribly extraordinary beyond the UK’s chain Costa Coffee, and I tended to fancy tea far more and especially for special occasions at the Grand Café and at The Rose. Where I am currently based in Chicago, there is a chockfull of cafes that range from the all-American chain Dunkin' Donuts, to local chains such as Metropolis and Intelligentsia, to independent joints like the former Stella Espresso-turn-Ellipsis near to my old apartment in the Rogers Park borough. 

left is Jet Fuel Coffee Shop in the Toronto village of Cabbagetown; right is Ellipsis Coffee House is the Chicago borough of Rogers Park

I must give a brief shout-out to coffee in San Francisco because though I don’t hail from this city in any way, my memories of Philz Coffee always remain bright and pungent from when I was introduced to them six years ago in 2008.

photographed by me in Summer 2008 at Philz Coffee in San Francisco in the Mission District
Coffee in India

Coffee in India is weak or too bitter, frequently warm rather than hot, and rarely ever brewed from freshly ground coffee beans let alone from organic beans. Café Coffee Day (aka CCD) and Barista both suck. This explains why 90% of the beverage menus at these aforementioned chains are not coffee and instead are sugary and milky items like shakes, akin to Indian tea aka desi chai. 

India Coffee House offers delicious treats such as ground spiced mutton lamb wrapped in a crispy South Indian dosa pancake, and their coffee is the last item on their menu you should order....
mutton dosa, egg uttapam, cheese omelette, cold coffees, milk roohafzas at the worker co-operative  India Coffee House in Chandigarh; photographed by me
Instead of coffee, chai is the lifeblood of India and of the greater South Asian subcontinent which the Chaiwallahs of India are documenting with great fervor and celebration...
courtesy of Times of India

My main squeeze in Delhi is Chaayos, which boasts over 4,000 ‘experiments with chai’ and where I have made wonderful connections such as with the founder of the Cause Kitchen nonprofit where I currently volunteer...
entry door at Chaayos chai cafe in Gurgaon, India; photographed by me

Koffee with Karan

During my 2013 and 2014 in India, coffee has nonetheless been a part of at least three memorable moments and connections. I hope these stories tickle your fancy somewhat beyond the largely plastic exchanges among Bollywood glitterati on the coffee-centered talk show Koffee with Karan

Double Roti

courtesy of
In India, I live in a satellite city of New Delhi known as Gurgaon. I stay near to the Galleria Market which has no shortage of fantastic eateries such as the Double Roti gourmet sandwich shop where the charming co-owner Japtej introduced me to Madras filter coffee. In addition to their decadent ‘illegal lamb burger’ and a Mediterranean sandwich stacked with grilled eggplant and zucchini and smeared with pesto (insert Yum), their filter coffee has become a favorite of mine. 

I suppose my enthusiasm for this incredibly well-curated shop became quite obvious since Japtej promptly invited me to join him on a trip to Chennai (aka Madras) to sample India’s delicious filter coffee in its most original forms.  And this lead to my first visit to India’s south where I drank Madras filter coffee along with mounds of delicious South Indian food...
Onion uttapam is the real treat at Murugan Idli Shop in Chennai (aka Madras); photographed by me

... and shopped until I dropped in the boisterous T Nagar Market...
Shoppers' paradise is T Nagar in Chennai (aka Madras); photographed by me

... and befriended shop owners of all varieties, from wig-sellers... 
Wig stall in Sathya Bazaar in Chennai (aka Madras); photographed by me

...and barbers...
this barber shop is was so stunning and handsome, I wish I had hair on my head to get cut here -- Kerala Hair Dressers in Pondy Bazaar in Chennai (aka Madras); photographed by me flower-ladies and fruit-sellers...
fresh flowers & fresh fruit are a universal bazaar combo -- Chennai (aka Madras); photographed by me

...and coffee baristas (of course).
smiling coffee barista in Chennai (aka Madras); photographed by me

V R Home Guest House

My lodging in Chennai was at the V R Home Guest House in the Anwarpet borough, where the owner regaled me with his numerous travel stories from Mumbai to New Delhi, to Jammu and Sri Nagar, to Hong Kong and Sydney, and Vancouver and Seattle, and it just never ended along with his delicious in-house Madras filter coffee. ‘Twas fantastic good morning chat to say the very least. I fell in love with it. 

good morning Madras filter coffee in Chennai (aka Madras); photographed by me

I expressed my enthusiasm for Madras filter coffee on social media by posting snaps on Instagram. A fellow Instagrammer commented with the question asking me what I do for a living, and it turns out that she is a journalist with my favorite Indian news daily, the Indian Express. Over a picture of a cup of coffee, we exchanged over 20 messages on Instagram. Another Instagrammer who read all this commented commented "If it was possible to like comments on instagram I'd have liked the bejeezus out of the above." All this has lead to a wonderful new connection.

chatting over Madras filter coffee served at Saravana Bhavan via Instagram
This connection was particularly wonderful in the context of a chat I was having on Facebook where a friend had gaffed about Instagram, describing it on his wall as narcissistic and ultimately futile. I disagreed and he asked rhetorically whether I had experienced meaningful interactions on Instagram. I responded that I have, yes, and pasted links to Instagram pictures with comments that amounted to interesting conversations and sometimes professional networking. He didn't say much in response to me, aside from some sneering remarks. Other friends on Facebook commented with stories such as “Thank you for this! … [with social media, I] connected with someone I would've never had the opportunity to, even found jobs. Every platform I use has provided something unique and/or made me more informative…  

p.s. I love all your Instagram pictures. They're making me fall in love with India all over again”.

~ tata :)


Anonymous said...

You're right that India is predominantly a chai nation. But I don't think all coffee in India sucks--try out Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. Also, there are plenty of places where you can get excellent filter coffee in the capital: e.g. Tamil Nadu bhavan.

Rahul Mediratta said...

hey Anonymous. I've tried Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, at Saket City Walk Plaza in Delhi -- blah, not great.

As for Madras filter coffee, you are right it's quite splendid. That's why I blogged about my visit to Chennai to sample on tons of it.

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