Bothered over brews

Bothered over brews

When a South Indian household runs out of coffee decoction one morning...

Coffee or tea?

How about some tea?” I asked my father-in-law. This was the most dreaded question for the morning. Like millions of South Indian families across the globe, we start our day with a cup of steaming filter coffee. Tea is usually the stepchild we resort to, unless it comes to what it is this morning.

“Alright, but you should buy coffee powder this evening. We can’t do this tomorrow,” he said with a smile.  The kind that sends out a clear message, ‘Don’t repeat this’. My father-in-law is a sweetheart, but his passion for coffee is right on top of everything else.

Coffee-drinking in South Indian families is a serious business. It starts with the right choice of coffee powder — coffee with chicory that is blended in the correct ratio for the best titillating effect on the taste buds. Once the coffee powder has been chosen, it is layered in a perforated filter, and boiling water is poured delicately without ruffling the coffee powder. The water, after mixing with the coffee, falls out as droplets of black coffee (or the divine decoction).

This black coffee, with milk and sugar, becomes the South Indian filter coffee. How this coffee is presented is a whole different story. Nobody in their right senses hands over this steaming beverage in a coffee mug. It should be served in steel glasses with frothy bubbles to add the ornate element. I had blown it big time with my unpreparedness for the morning ritual.

“You must surely have some instant coffee left?” my mother-in-law looked confused because that’s the sort of thing that most South Indian families do for back-up. It is not filter coffee, of course, but it is ‘like’ filter coffee. “Well, ma,” I gathered enough courage to say it out aloud, “The powder is stuck to the bottle and has hardened. I think it’s impossible to scrap it off,” I finished with bated breath, hoping I would not be judged. I should have been at the top of my game as a kitchen manager and checked for the instant coffee powder as the other coffee stock dwindled. My anger towards instant coffee rose. I fumed in my head.   
Now, after expressing my inability to see this coming, I had lost yet another opportunity to impress my mother-in-law. (I still try, after 21 years).

“So, what?” asked my mother-in-law in her typical ‘I can make coffee out of anything’ style. “All you have to do is pour some hot water into the jar and the coffee will mix, giving us some decoction,” she said matter-of-factly. Coffee decoction is nothing but strong coffee, but it is the holy water of our homes. 

I had foreseen this because, as a family that swears by the morning cuppa, we do everything in our power to get our fix. “I guess we can give it a shot,” I said without a choice. I had ruined it for the morning anyway. Mother-in-law disappeared into the kitchen to try her ingenious idea. I wondered what would it be for that morning: coffee or tea? I stood in the kitchen as my mother-in-law struggled with the rock-solid residue stuck to the bottom of the glass bottle. She stuck a knife inside to extract a few crystals and poured in some hot water. “Will something come off this?” I didn’t know what to hope for. Yet, after 10 minutes, we were left with a liquid that looked pale. “This won’t do us any good,” she observed. “Thought as much,” I said in my head. “Shall I make tea, then?” I asked her instead. “We don’t have any choice,” she declared. I tried hard not to read between the lines and got down to the business of tea-making. After making sure the tea was boiled to perfection, with extra ginger and sugar, I did the unthinkable...

Tea may not have a presentation protocol, but I decided to go the extra mile. I poured it out in steel glasses, made sure it had enough froth to fall off the rim, and handed it over to father-in-law. He smiled as he took the tea that was in disguise. “It is not coffee, but this is not bad,” he said as he took his first sip. “Thank you,” I smiled at what seemed to have worked like magic, but I knew what I had to say: “I will surely stock up on coffee this evening.”

Tea, anyone? 


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