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.

Learning from experience

Experience is one thing you can’t get for nothing

[Oscar Wilde]

 Science, my lad, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth.

[Jules Verne]

The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing

[Henry Ford]

 

green and white tents near trees

Photo by ajay bhargav GUDURU on Pexels.com

In 1971, I spent about a fortnight driving around France with several friends including the now well-known journalist Matthew Parris. He was our driver, and we travelled in the car that he had driven through Africa and Europe from South Africa to England a year or two earlier.  We camped ‘wild’ wherever possible, avoiding official campsites.

The first night was a disaster for me. We had a canvas tent with an inner room, which had its own built-in groundsheet. The outer room was without its own one. I helped lay out the groundsheet for the outer room and decided (for no good reason at all) to leave its edges protruding beyond the outer wall of that part of the tent. I was one of those assigned to sleep in the outer part of the tent.

I laid out my sleeping bag on the ground sheet, and then crawled into it. To my surprise and horror, I could feel every pebble and stone beneath me. When I had bought the sleeping bag, I had naively believed that it lived up to its name; that it would help me to sleep. Nobody had advised me to buy a Li-Lo, an inflatable mattress which would have cushioned me from the ground beneath me and the misfortune that was about to befall me. 

During the night, there was a thunder storm. The rain came down heavily and before long, my sleeping bag was soaked; the water had crept into the tent via the groundsheet. Although I had a miserable sleepless night, I was not put off the idea of camping. Next day, we tied my soaking sleeping bag onto the roof rack above our car and it dried in the wind as we drove along. We also stopped in the aptly named town of Tonnerre (‘thunder’ in French) in France, where I purchased a Li-Lo. The rest of the holiday went swimmingly so to speak.

A nest in Macedonia

In about 1977, I travelled to Greece overland with my PhD supervisor (‘Prof) and his wife (‘Wink’). Every year they towed a caravan across Europe to their favourite camping spot near Platamon on the coast of northern Greece. They were averse to camping overnight in campsites. They preferred to camp ‘wild’ at spots of their own choosing. Their journey involved three nights in the former Yugoslavia, a country where camping outside official campsites was against the law. However, over the years they had found several places in Yugoslavia where they could camp ‘wild’. Prof and Wink were always anxious when they travelled through that country, constantly worrying that their illegal camping activities would get them into trouble. Let’s join them on the last few hours before leaving southern Yugoslavia (in what is now Macedonia) and an official campsite, where circumstances forced us to stay one night. Here are two extracts from a book, which I have not yet published.

OHRID 0

Picnic north of Ohrid in Macedonia, 1977. The author is standing

“After lunch, we drove onwards towards the town of Ohrid that lies on the eastern shore of the lake bearing the same name. As the sun began to set, we faced a problem. Prof and Wink had never travelled to Ohrid before and knew of no places where we could camp ‘wild’. Driving along, we could see nowhere suitable to do so. Cautiously, I recommended the town’s campsite. I had stayed there a few years earlier with my friend Hugh. It was a lovely spot next to the lake shore. Reluctantly, Prof agreed that this would have to be where we should spend the night. At the entrance of the camping grounds, we had to surrender our passports in order that the camp could register our presence to the police. Prof was reluctant to let go of his passport, but when the officials assured him that they did not need it for long, he gave in.

While supper was being prepared, I took a stroll around the campsite. An elderly employee of the campsite approached me and greeted me like an old friend. When I shook his outstretched hand, I remembered who he was. I had met him the first time I camped in Ohrid for a week in the late 1960s. On that visit, I used to walk from the campsite to the town in order to do sightseeing or to catch buses from it to other places in the area.  At the end of each day, I used to walk back to the campsite, where Hugh had sunbathed all day. On one of these return journeys, this man, who greeted me so many years later, had seen me on the road and had invited me into his home to meet his family. I was touched that he recognised me…”

OHRID 1 1973

Ohrid in 1973

“… we continued our journey towards Greece on the following morning. We left Ohrid and drove across the mountains east of Lake Ohrid to Resen, where we did not stop. Had we not been in so much of a hurry to leave Yugoslavia – Wink and Prof always felt more than a little uneasy being there – I would loved to have visited the nearby Lake Prespa, which, like Lake Ohrid, shares its waters between Yugoslavia (now Macedonia or FYROM or Northern Macedonia) and Albania. Unlike the bigger Ohrid, Prespa also shares its water with Greece. In fact, the frontiers of the three Balkan countries meet in the middle of the lake. We crossed another mountain pass after leaving Resen, and then descended into the plain in which the town of Bitola stands.

We parked near a large mosque in Bitola, and then began wandering around an open market. Prof stopped by a stall selling green grapes. There were flies crawling all over them. He took out a notebook and pencil, and then pointed at a fly on one of the grapes. He was hoping to learn the local word for that particular kind of fly; he was always trying to improve his vocabulary in the languages that he encountered en-route. He even carried a miniature tape recorder in which he recorded people pronouncing words in, usually, Modern Greek. He used to listen to these recordings and try to repeat them in order to improve his pronunciation. The seller of the grapes, seeing Robert’s interest in his wares, was hoping to make a sale but could not understand what the foreigner was asking. Both parties were left unsatisfied.

OHRID 2 BITOLA 77 Train from Medzhitlija

The road from Bitola to Medzhitilija on the Yugoslav side of the Greek border in 1977

After leaving Bitola we drove southwards across a flat cultivated plain until we reached the Yugoslav customs post at Medzhitilija. We waited in a queue of vehicles until we drove under the wooden canopy over the roadway adjacent to the border officers’ cabin. Before handing our documents to the official waiting alongside the car, Prof looked up into the eaves of the steeply pitched roof and began pointing at something. The customs officer looked up and then at Prof, who was frantically leafing through a small well-worn Serbo-Croatian pocket dictionary.

“I wonder what the Yugos call a house-martin’s nest,” Prof kept muttering.

The officer looked him, puzzled rather than impatient.

“For heaven’s sake, let’s get on,” Wink shouted at her husband from her perch behind us. 

She, even more than Prof, was keen to leave the communist country where, on previous trips, they had had minor though worrying brushes with authority.

Minutes later, we were driving south along a Greek road …”

Pull it out…

After qualifying at University College Hospital Dental School in early 1982, I practised dentistry for another thirty-five and a half years. I never owned my own practice but worked in those owned by other people. I worked in a total of five practices. With exception of one practice, where I worked for less than eight months, I enjoyed the conditions of the rest. None of my ‘bosses’ (i.e. the practice owners) appeared to mind how much or how little I earned for them and how much time I took off for travelling. I am grateful to them for their tolerant attitudes towards my laid-back approach to work.

My first boss, ‘J’, provided gave me a smooth introduction to the trials and tribulations of general dental practice. He was always ready to give me advice if I needed it, but gently encouraged me to take control of my decision making so that I became in charge of what I was doing.

During the first few months of being in practice, I often encountered difficulties when extracting teeth. Maybe, at that time I had insufficient experience to know when an extraction was likely to be too difficult for me to perform. Maybe, some teeth are just very hard to extract. This is the case.

If I got stuck midway through an extraction, I would ask my dental nurse to summon J. When J, who was very skilled at extracting teeth, arrived, he would work on the tooth up to a certain point. Then he would say to me that I should finish the job. He could have easily completed the extraction himself, but he wanted me to do it so that my patient would not lose confidence in me. I feel that this was extremely kind of him and will always be grateful for his sensitive approach. Later in the day, when there were no patients about, he used to take me aside and explain what he had done to loosen the tooth. Thus, I learned how to improve my technique.

As the years passed, my ability to perform extractions, even difficult ones, increased. Often, I would extract teeth that my colleagues would have referred to specialists. Although some of my other dental skills improved over the years, It is sad to relate that what I became best at was removing teeth rather than saving them!

PS: dentists never PULL out teeth; they use various techniques to widen the tooth socket and to split the collagen fibres that hold the tooth in the socket.

Picture source: “Der Zahnarzt in der Karikatur” by E Heinrich (1963)