No outside food

 

The Coffee Cup café in London’s Hampstead has been in business since 1953, and has been very popular since I first remembered it in the early 1960s. I have visited it several times, but never before noticed the sign at its entrance, which reads: “Please do not bring food or drinks from outside into these premises.” This instruction is not seen frequently in restaurants and cafés in the UK. Seeing this sign reminded me of what is very common in eateries in India, namely, signs reading: “Outside food not allowed.” Customers are forbidden to bring into the estblishment food or drink they have obtained elsewhere. That is fair enough, I suppose.

Cinemas in India, like in many other countries, try to sell food and drink to their customers, often at outrageously high prices. Apparently, watching a film is for many people more enjoyable if you are stuffing popcorn into your mouth at the same time as spilling it on the floor in the dark.

Back in 2001, my family, my in-laws, and my wife’s brothers family went to watch the recently released Bollywood blockbuster Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham at a large cinema in Bangalore (India). After purchasing the tickets, we had to wait in a queue before all of our baggage, shopping baskets, handbags etc., were searched by uniformed security personnel. I wondered what these officials were looking for. Was it guns or explosives, I asked my sister-in-law after we had reached the auditorium. No, it was not that, she replied. They were looking for food and drinks brought from outside the cinema. She told me that outside food was not allowed into the cinema, and then showed me inside her shopping basket, All I could see was a shawl (some cinemas are too cool because of air-conditioning). She moved the shawl aside to reveal that her bag was filled with sufficient drinks and snacks to easily satisfy all eight of us during the three and a half hour film. So much for the security check! Had we been carrying anything more dangerous than ‘outside food’, this would have also been missed by the not so vigilant security people.

It is odd how a chance sighting of something like the sign in the Coffee Cup can bring back distant memories.

Taking the plunge

 

The cafetière (or ‘French press’ or ‘coffee plunger’) has been around for 90 years. It was first invented in 1929. It achieved popularity in England much later. I remember my mother bought one in the 1960s. It was then a ‘trendy’ way of making coffee. My mother used this device to make coffee for some time until one evening something awful happened.

Her brother-in-law, my uncle, was preparing coffee in a cafetière one evening, when suddenly the plunger, which usually needs some pressure to force down the coffee beneath the filter, suddenly shot downwards very quickly. As it did so, boiling hot coffee shot up and burnt my uncle’s hand and arm extremely badly. After this unfortunate accident, my mother, who was a very cautious and safety-conscious person, abandoned using her prized plunger, and reverted to making coffee through conical filter papers.

Although my mother would never use a cafetière again, I continued to do so. Many years after her premature death, I had a strange experience whilst plunging the coffee after feeding dinner to some guests. My wife had filled the cafetière vessel and had left the coffee to ‘infuse’. It was my job to take the plunge so to speak. I pressed down the plunger cautiously. It was harder than usual to press it. The plunger descended a little, but when I removed my hand it began rising. I pushed it again, getting it down a little further, but again the plunger rose up towards its staring position. I kept repeating the procedure, and each time the plunger rose a little. Eventually, I managed to get the plunger to remain near the base of the coffee container, and I poured out the coffee into cups.

I was mystified by our plunger’s abnormal behaviour.

After the guests had left, I opened up the cafetière to clean it. Beneath the plunger amongst the compressed coffee grounds, I disovered the reason for the odd phenomenon. Hidden amongst the dregs of the coffee there was a stainless steel tea spoon. Its previously straight stem had been gradually bent into a U-shape whilst I was trying to press down the plunger. What amazed me when I thought about it afterwards was that it was lucky that the glass vessel was tough enough to withstand the pressure exerted by the spoon on the glass while I was inadvertantly bending it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coffee by the yard

Traditionally, South Indian filter coffee is served piping hot in small conical metal breakers. The beakers, which are almost too hot to hold, stand in deep cylindrical metal saucers, as shown in the picture.

To cool the coffee so that it reaches a drinkable temperature, one lifts the hot beaker out of the saucer, and then pours the coffee from the beaker into the saucer from as greater height as you dare. Then, you pour the slightly cooler coffee back into the saucer. The procedure is repeated until the beverage reaches the desired temperature.

The person making the coffee repeatedly scoops the bubbling boiling milk, which is added to the coffee, from its pot on the heat, and then pours it back from a great height. The stream of boiling milk is often quite long.

My late father-in-law, a witty man, referring to the pouring from a height involved in filter coffee making and drinking, used to ask us when we visited a coffee house in Bangalore : “How many yards of coffee do you want?”

Note: 1 yard is a measure of length a little less than 1 metre

Slurp, don’t suck

Currently, many people want to “save the planet”. This is a worthy desire.

One way to help save our planet is to ditch plastics, which are not biodegradable, and replace them with paper that can be degraded biologically. Thus, plastic bags are giving way to paper and cloth bags. Supermarkets in the UK are now charging customers, who have not brought along their own reusable bags, a fee to buy a new plastic bag in which to carry home the goods which the supermarket companies have packed in non-biodegradable plastic!

Now, enter your café and order a drink with a straw. Trendy cafés, which are trying to be eco-friendly, supply biodegradable drinking straws Instead of the old fashioned plastic ones. This offers no problems if you suck your drink rapidly. If you prefer to linger over your drink, the paper straw absorbs fluid and becomes soggy. You might well need to use more than one paper straw to finish your drink. This will result in creating more rubbish than using a single plastic straw.

One solution to the straw problem, which I favour, is not to use one, but to put your lips to the glass or bottle that contains your drink: slurp, don’t suck!

Finally, to escape from the humble drinking straw, let us raise our heads to the solar panels with which we adorn our roofs in order to reduce our consumption of the rapidly reducing sources of natural fuels. A learned friend once told me that in order to manufacture these panels, more fossil fuel energy is expended than will ever be saved by the panels!

Save the planet by all means, but make sure that these means will actually save the planet, rather than simply salve our consciences.

Coffee with ginger

Cochin is a port on the Malabar coast. It provided a haven and home for people from all over the world, including Arabic traders. Now, it attracts foreign tourists from all over the world. This article is about a legacy of the Arab settlers.

I have occasionally drunk coffee flavoured with cardamom in Arabic restaurants. This drink is identical to Turkish coffee but is subtly tinged with cardamom.

An article, published on 28th December 2018 in the Hindu Metroplus (Cochin edition), alerted us to the existence of Kava Kada, a tiny café next to the Mahalari Masjid (mosque) in the Mattancherry district of Cochin in Kerala (India). The café is literally a hole-in-the-wall in the side of the masjid, a few feet away from the main minaret.

A small, aged glass counter-top display cabinet contains a few fried snacks including batter covered fried bananas. There are a couple of very low benches for customers to sit on. The owner of the café stands behind the counter surrounded by metal pots and a gas stove.

This tiny outlet is famed for its Arabian style ‘kava’. This coffee is served in small thick-walled glasses. I have never tasted coffee like this. At first, I thought I was drinking biryani flavoured sweetened coffee. It was delicious. Quite unlike any other coffee that I have drunk, this kava is flavoured with dry ginger, cloves, sugar, cardamom, black pepper, and other spices.

The café is located close to a bustling intersection of two main roads. Cars, two-wheelers, autorickshaws, and small trucks whizzed passed us a few inches away from where we were sitting. Two goats wandered past, seemingly unconcerned by the traffic.

The coffee shop was set up long ago by the now aged Kochumuhammad, who, as a boy, was taught by Arab migrants how to prepare the special kava. For the past 20 years, the shop has been run by one of his 26 grandchildren, a man called Riyaz.

We spent about 10 minutes sipping our coffee, which is good for the throat, so an autorickshaw driver told us. During our brief stay, there was a steady stream of customers buying kava.

I am very grateful to the intern Amala Rose Boben, who wrote the newspaper article, for alerting us to this fascinating little coffee house.

Things go better with Coke

It was the day after the much-loved fimstar Ambareesh died. He was a hero all over the Indian state of Karnataka. To respect him, alcohol sales were forbidden in Bangalore. It was what is called a ‘dry day’. One could not order any alcoholic drink at a bar, restaurant, etc.

So, being unable to order an alcoholic drink, I ordered Coca Cola.

“Coca Cola” the waiter queried, “it’s not available. Today is dry day, sir”

“But Coca Cola is not alcoholic” I protested, adding “Coke, you know”

“Ah, Coke, sir. I can bring you that,”the waiter said, at last understanding what I was trying to order.

Filter coffee

South Indian filter coffee is wonderful. Here is how it is prepared. First coffee powder is placed in the upper chamber of a cylindrical metal vessel with a finely perforated base. Hot water is poured on it. Then, the water slowly filters through the powder to produce an intensely strong, undrinkable filtrate, known as ‘decoction’. This filtration takes many hours.

The coffee-maker ladles some decoction into a vessel, often a stainless steel beaker. Then, he or she fills the rest of the beaker with freshly boiled milk (With or without sugar).

If you want your coffee without sugar, ask for “sugarless”.

The coffee cup comes with a deep saucer. To cool the coffee, you pour the coffee from the beaker to the saucer and vice versa.

Then, ENJOY!

Monkey business

MONKEY

 

I was reminded of what follows, a true story,  after seeing an excellent photograph (reproduced above). The photographer Ajay Ghatage (from Bangalore) has kindly allowed me to use this photo.

Until I first visited India in 1994, I had never seen a monkey except in a zoo. Even in the hearts of big cities in India, these creatures are as successful as other city fauna such as pigeons, wild dogs, and birds of prey. I never cease to be fascinated by the monkeys’ antics, but I do recognise their nuisance value.

Kitchen windows need to be protected to stop monkeys from entering. At least once I walked into the family kitchen and startled a monkey, which was about to leap out of the window clasping a bunch of bananas.

Once my wife’s family decided that it would be fun to go on an outing to the Big Banyan, a few miles outside Bangalore. The Big Banyan is at least 400 years old and lives up to its name – it is a vast rambling tree that spreads its branches and aerial roots over a huge area. It is a popular picnic place, but, having visited it, I fail to see why. We found a clearing within the area covered by the tree, and then laid out a blanket for a picnic. Before we could sit down, many monkeys appeared. One of them began tugging at the blanket, and others looked greedily at our picnic baskets. The situation became so menacing that we abandoned the idea of a picnic and retired to eat in the car.

Many years later, my wife, our daughter, and I visited Badami in northern Karnataka. This place is famed for its fabulous Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist temples, some of which were carved in the living rock by the Chalukya dynasty in the 5th to 8th centuries AD. The area was infested with monkeys on the look-out for almost anything they could get hold of.

Some of the ancient temples are located next to a ‘tank’ or lake. While we were looking at these, our daughter wanted to take a photo. So, my wife held her bag.  Suddenly, I heard my wife making loud growling sounds. She was tugging our daughter’s bag while a monkey was trying to pull it away from her. The monkey was strong, but my wife’s growls scared it into releasing the bag.

A short while later, we sat down to have soft drinks under some trees. Our daughter ordered a virulently coloured orange carbonated drink. It was not one we would have recommended, but it appealed to our daughter. After the bag incident, we had warned her not to let go of anything, but she forgot momentarily. She put the opened bottle of drink beside her on the bench. Before she could say “monkey”, the bottle had disappeared. We looked up into one of the trees, and saw a monkey putting the bottle to its lips.

A few seconds later the monkey turned the bottle upside down, and then poured its contents down through the branches. Clearly, it was a creature with a discerning palate.