The sacred sip

The new fangled versions of beverages are no challenge to the stronger, time-tested brew.

Abraham Lincoln is reported to have said, “If this is coffee please bring me some tea, if this is tea please bring me some coffee”. I have felt like borrowing this quote many a time. Especially during meetings when served with something that tastes a bit like a witches’ brew and a bit like dish water. But I’ve held my peace and gulped down whatever was doled out, grateful for something to caress my throat.

I’ve held my peace when I’ve asked for a sugar less cup and have been reassured that it has less sugar. It’s only when I’m served something that’s at cabin temperature (a la economy airlines) have I ventured to return the cup and demanded something piping hot so that the one distinguishing feature of the hot beverage is retained.
Now mutant species of the hot beverage – decaf and teas of various hues green, red, white and herbal have made their way into homes and offices promising to get the heart, liver, kidney back into shape, loaded as they are with antioxidants. But they distinctly fail the hospitality test. I have seen visitors beat a hasty retreat, or end conversations before the cup is drained or make excuses that they feel too full when proffered a healthful cup.

The new fangled versions are no challenge to the stronger, time-tested brew. Ingested over the years,  ‘kadak’ chai and ‘strong’ coffee have, while banishing fatigue, also conferred on the drinker cast-iron stomachs that is not satisfied with weaker concoctions.

The industry that caters to the hot beverage-need spans road side tea stalls, canteens, swank cafés, and has an expanding customer base. Be it commuters, blue and white collar workers, casual visitors, wedding guests, homemakers, patients, heads of state; there’s something in it for everyone. Nursing a hot cup is in order whether to shake off sleep, gossip, brood, wait for a bus or discuss weighty matters. There’s no occasion that’s not right for a hot cuppa. I think if there’s a category in comfort foods for the liquid variety, the hot cup of tea or coffee would win hands down across borders.

On a holiday in a small town in Sweden, after a long, freezing, touristy day, we spotted what seemed an unused coffee vending machine in the hotel where we were staying. It seemed like manna from heaven, especially after our experiments with an alien cuisine, distinctly unfriendly to vegetarians. We asked the person manning the counter and solely in charge of the hotel, to serve us the coffee. He shrugged, “It doesn’t work”.

As I had quite some experience in coaxing water from dry pumps in my childhood days in Madras, I did not believe him and went ahead and fiddled with the levers. The coffee gushed forth. I was quite put off by what I thought was a calculated attempt to deny us a much needed cup of consolation. When we asked for the bill, the riddle unraveled itself. “It’s on the house” he said. “It’s free.” We protested that we didn’t want it free. He grinned sheepishly, “But I don’t know how to bill it!” That literally was a priceless cup of coffee!


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