Tribute to the Indian Coffee House – India, Asia

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Do you ever confuse your latté with your cappuccino or your macchiato with your mocha? Are you sick and tired of places that serve coffee by the bucketful (or should that be from the bucket) in paper cups? Are you a bit dubious about coffee bars that somehow seem to have “rediscovered” coffee and have reinvented it as the latest lifestyle product? Well, for me at least, such establishments can keep their ‘‘double mint mocha decaf skim latté”. After all, coffee is just coffee, and it has been around since the 9th century.

I’m a big coffee drinker. I drink it wherever and whenever I can, but I rarely drink it in cafés or restaurants in the UK. I refuse to go to one of the trendy high street coffee bars that have sprung up during the past decade or so and pay the equivalent of at least Rs 160 for a small cup.

They serve coffee from all over the world and the aromas are beautiful, but the catch is that the customer pays through the nose. A second catch is that you are sitting in a place designed by consumer analysts, where the décor is carefully (some would say cynically) selected to entice, manipulate and part you from your cash.

You can of course choose the cheaper option and drink coffee from a paper cup in a fast food restaurant. It won’t feel quite the same as drinking it in a traditional coffeehouse, though. Neither will it taste the same.

I recall visiting a traditional coffee house in Vienna; I was given a thimble-like container of black coffee. Although I was highly disappointed with the quantity, after one sip I realised that this was no ordinary coffee. It was the super-concentrated type, of rocket-fuel strength; excellent if rather strong coffee served in a beautifully furnished coffeehouse that had been part and parcel of the local community for generations. Sadly, these days, those traditional houses are facing strong competition from the McCoffee world.

After having sampled the delights of coffee around the globe, I have come to conclude that there is only one place to drink it – in India. And there is only one establishment to drink it in – the Indian Coffee House (ICH). I’ve visited branches in Shimla, Allahabad, Pondicherry, Calcutta, Trivandrum, Cochin and many places besides; I have never been disappointed.

The Indian Coffee Houses are pretty basic places, where the decor generally takes a back seat to the low prices and delicious food, which varies from region to region. Unlike the new, trendy coffee bars now in India, there is no long and winding coffee menu to choose from. Coffee comes as coffee; no frills, no fancy names. And it’s delicious. For a handful of rupees per cup, you can’t complain.

Black-and-white framed photographs of Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi and Indira Gandhi usually adorn the walls of each ICH; waiters are dressed in shabby, white (well, whitish) uniforms. Each ICH seems to have its own clientele. Depending on which branch you happen to be in, you may be rubbing shoulders with vacationing families, lawyers, students, or men who sit at wobbly tables on wobbly chairs, hiding behind newspapers and discussing the issues of the day.

Each ICH has its own distinct character. For example, the one in Thiruvananthapuram, near the train station, has good food served in a strange leaning-tower-of-Pisa-like spiral building. Others can be a bit dingy and may not have most of the items on the menu. The elaborate headdresses on the waiters are usually a metaphor for the type of service on offer: clean, starched and upright, or limp and ill-fitting. But one thing is always guaranteed: the idlis, masala dishes, biryanis or just plain "toast bread jam" will be excellent.

I do not wish to take anything away from the trendy Starbucks, Caffè Nero or Costa coffee bars in the West or indeed any of the new establishments in India. OK, maybe I do! After all, the managements at the various head offices put a lot of time into thinking about product placement, branding, positioning, target groups, performance indicators, market penetration and all manner of ways to make you part with your hard earned cash.

In stark contrast, traditional coffee houses possess a certain authenticity, and that’s what I like about the India Coffee House. It operates as a worker’s co-operative, unmolested by the cynicism and profiteering of the corporate world. For better or worse, it shows. Maybe it’s a place trapped in time. Perhaps it’s a place in time that I prefer.

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