Saturday, July 11, 2009

Growing up with coffee

As I was relaxing at Barista in one of the shopping malls and sipping my cup of mocha, I was caught in an idyllic reverie about this extremely popular drink called coffee and how it has now become a part of our metrosexual personality.

In my boyhood, Coffee was not very popular at our home. My parents were avid tea-drinkers and there used to be lengthy discussions on Assam Tea vis-à-vis Darjeeling Tea, “Half dust tea” vis-à-vis “Long leaf tea” and other fineries of tea. Coffee, in those days, was the more exotic drink – kept aside for some special occasions or a few specific guests who preferred coffee to tea. I recollect that on such occasions, when a guest had asked for coffee instead of tea, my grandmother used to grudgingly leave the centre stage of the kitchen and give way to my aunt who would then be given the ominous responsibility of making coffee. My aunt would the add one teaspoon of instant coffee with an equal amount of water and sugar and beat it till to death (i.e till it becomes a light brown caramel-like paste) and then add water and milk (usually more milk than water). This milky fluid with a mild aroma of coffee would then be euphemically described as coffee and would be served to the privileged guest.

I caught-on to coffee rather early in life and somewhat accidentally. Like most kids, I had a severe aversion towards milk and no amount of additives could make me drink it willingly. After trying out all the additions like Horlicks, Bournvita, Drinking Chocolate, Maltova, Protinex etc, my aunt, out of sheer frustration tried adding coffee in my milk. This was the beginning of a long love affair, which peaked in my college days – when I was a hard core coffee addict drinking several cups of black coffee. Though over the years I have shifted to drinking tea, my love for coffee still lingers somewhere in the background and I end up sneaking a cup of coffee during the day.

I was recently informed that Coffee was discovered in Ethiopia and then moved to Egypt / Yemen and eventually entered the muslim world. Finally it entered the “European” world through Italy. In fact this drink was banned in the Ottoman Turkey in the 17th century as it allowed people to remain “sober” and therefore conscious enough to criticise the state and monarchy!! This lead to a large number of coffee traders moving out of Turkey into Italy, Britain, France and other European countries. I was quite surprised at this as I always thought coffee to be a pure European drink.

Coffee, in India was then dominated by Nescafe. Much later two smaller brands “BRU” from Brooke Bonds and “Sunlight” came into the market, the latter eventually was taken over by Nescafe. We also briefly had the Tata Café – an extremely nice brand which, surprisingly, sunk without a trace. There was, ofcourse, the so called parallel line of coffee drinkers, predominantly from the southern part of India, who drank “Filter Coffee”. I believe that it is impossible to make “Filter Coffee” this properly unless your roots are in one of those four southern states. Anybody else trying to do this ends up preparing a curious coffee with a distinct muddy smell!

We got introduced and gradually aclimatised into the world of “international” coffee with the advent of the coffee chain called Barista in the year 2000. This was originally a coffee chain founded by Amit Judge of Turner Morrison and was the pioneer in creating branded coffee shops in India. I think its first two coffee shops were in Delhi, strategically located near the Jawaharlal Nehru University and the Indian Institute of Technology to capture the college crowd. Needless to say, both were instant hits and Barista soon expanded into other cities in the country. We fell in love with the “global” coffees - the single shot “Espresso Italiano”, a 30 ml strong black coffee, it’s watered down version called “Americano”, the milky “Latte” , the chocolaty “Mocha” as well as the international favourite “Capuchino”. More than that, we got addicted to the “atmosphere” of a coffee shop.

It was a paradigm shift from the traditional coffee houses across the world where we were served coffees in tiny, slightly stained coffee cups with uninspiring accompaniments like sandwiches and masala dosas. Barista and Café Coffee Day completely changed our perception of a coffee shop. Instead of the old dusty rooms with old dusty furnitures, we now had spotlessly clean air conditioned coffee shops with high stools, comformable chairs as well as extra comfortable sofas. The shops were decorated with color schemes as per the brand, with bright cheerful tongue-in-cheek posters and a wide variety of mouth-watering eatables – grilled sandwiches, muffins, cakes, puffs and patties. And most importantly, the wiff of good coffee which almost hits you in the chest when you swing open the glass door to enter any of the coffee shops.

Suddenly these coffee shops became socialising joints to hang out with friends, to go with your family for a change as well as to spend some time in solitude. I remember walking with my cousin along the marine drive after a late dinner till eleven o’clock in the night and then walking into the Barista near the chowpatty to have an expresso and a game of scrabble. There has also been many moments when I have gone into the coffee shop with a good book and have spent a good two hours completely alone.

Today coffee has become an integral part of the urban Indian culture. It has seamlessly integrated into the other urbal culture of shopping malls. Every mall has atleast one – usually two coffee shops (with Café Coffee Day usually being one of the two). New theme coffee shops have come up (like Mocha, Java Green, Costa et al) with further additions to their menus (Ethiopian Qahwah, Kenyan Safari, Brazilian Coffee , Colombian Coffee et al ). The old Barista has also gone through a make over – a love affair with Lavazza, the Italian Coffee giant which operates in Europe under the name Café de Roma. It is no longer uncommon to have a full featured coffee machine at home and discuss whether to buy the Dark Forest brand or the Café Coffee Day Charge brand. People have also graduated to the level of discussing the exact proportion that should be maintained between coffee and chicory and whether to top it up with a dash of a hazelnut flavour!!

It’s a long journey and from the looks of it, the horizon is nowhere near. Let the journey continue as we savour every sip of all variants of this ecstatic drink.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Himalayas - a romance in snow

Himalayas always had an appeal to me. It, in fact, would appeal to anyone who loves solitude. Though I am furiously social and generally like to be surrounded with people, there is a certain degree of detachment within me which seem to match with the himalayas in its spirit.

Himachal is one of the most attractive parts of the Himalayas. Its derives much of its charm from its proximity to the snow-capped mountains. And amongst the various districts of Himachals, Kinnaur, is one of the most popular one among all others mainly for its virgin beauty.

Kinnaur is at the north-eastern side of Himachal and is approached from Simla. Its connectivity with rest of Himachal is via treacherous roads which often get blocked due to landslides and snows - making it somewhat remote and inaccessible. The Kinnaur valley moves along the Sutlej river and has an entry to the mystical land of Tibet. It is also famous for having the Kinnaur Kailash (one of the residents of lord Shiva; the other two being Kailash near Manasarovar in Tibet and Manimahesh - which can be seen from the north-western part of Himachal).

Our trip to Kinnaur had a short stay at Sarahan - a nice quiet stopover before the eventual visit to the splendid Kalpa. Sarahan boasts of the Bhima Kali temple, an archaic wooden temple with one of the most intricate wood carvings in the midst of lush green mountains. It also has a "Raja ka mahal" - the kings palace which is in a rather dilapidated condition at the moment. Sarahan also has a very comfortable HPTDC guest house with "larger-than-your-fist" size roses along the wall and a very accommodating staff inside. Tea and Coffee was served at an abundance and with something to munch with it at regular intervals.

The next stop was Kalpa. This is supposed to be the most picturesque place in Kinnaur. My experiences with most of the much hyped-up places has been a feeling of disappointment but Kalpa was a welcome aberration. Simply put, it is one of the most amazing snow points in the entire himalayas. HPTDC, as usual, had picked up one of the best locations in the place and as we were staying at HPTDC, we weren't complaining.

Our room was a comfortable double bed room with a window which gave us a view of the entire snow range including the Kinnaur. It had a room heater, several thick blankets and connection to the kitchen through an enclosed wooden walkway. This wooden walkway seems a simple taken-for-granted stuff but when you need to walk to the kitchen to order for a cup of tea (the telephone in the room was very erratic) at 8 O'clock in the evening with outside temperature at around 8-9 deg C, you tend to appreciate these simple pleasures of life.
We spent almost a week at Kalpa in Kinnaur - a feat which left most of the usual tourists agog with horror. "You will be bored", "There is hardly anything to do" were the most polite statements that we heard, the impolite ones being mean digs at our cerebral health and aptitudes. We used to have short leisurely trips to the nearby locations, short treks but mostly long stretches of sitting idly and looking at the mountains. Being regular bookworms, we had several thick novels with us - nice and engrossing ones which would have demanded our undivided attention under normal circumstances. Kalpa, however, proved to be a greater enchantress. Often we were found to be looking at the mountains, with the book kept upturn on our laps.

We made a short visit to Recong Peo, the nearest human habitat euphemically described as a town and found it to be rather plain-jane affair. It lacks the grandour of Simla or the solitary beauty of Kalpa - a rather curious hybrid. We ventured out to have some momo from this place and were rudely made aware of the fact that local flavours look the best only on TV shows. This momo was no where near the mouth-watering delights available in the small bylanes of Kolkata inhabited by the tibetans for several generations now.

On our way back, we stopped at Simla and were again enamoured by her ageless charm. This was our third trip to Simla - and yet again we found it to be wonderful. A drastic opposite of the quiet Kalpa, Simla always enchants the tourists with its colour, energy and spirit. We went into a shopping spree - spending several hard earned currencies to buy stuffs which, till that point of time, never featured as an important stuff in our lives. We remembered several long lost relatives, pined for them and bought several gifts for them with tearful remembrances. Thankfully our stay at Simla was not for long and we came back before things reached astronomical proportions.

We came back from this memorable trip with a heavy heart and heavier bags and a thin wallet!! We made several solemn promises of not spending so much and how trips are not meant to be shopping expeditions - knowing fully well that we will again fall folly to these temptations at the end of the next trip.

Ah, well, such is life!!

Saturday, July 4, 2009

In an antique land : Turkey

The name Turkey or Turkiye evokes memories of my old dusty dog-eared history book. As a part of our European history lessons, we had read about “Asia Minor” or “Anatolia” – though had nobody bothered to explain that the same place is now known as Turkey. Similarly, we were taught about Constantinople (what a lyrical name!) and its history without ever mentioning that the same place is now called Istanbul and is one of the most popular romantic destination of the Europeans now.

I, therefore, was looking forward to this trip when my “call of duty” demanded that I must visit my clients in Istanbul. In the past two years, I had three opportunities to go there but only during the last visit, I had some free time to see a few things albeit in a cursory manner.
Constantinople was originally called Byzantium. It was renamed after emperor Constantine I (who is famous as the person who gave some sort of a "structure" into Christianity and gave the catholic church its identity) when he shifted the capital of the “Eastern Roman Empire” to Byzantine. Interestingly, in the 3rd century AD, under the roman emperor Diocletian, the roman empire was “functionally" split into the Western and the Eastern Roman Empire having separate emperors (called Co-emperors) with each having a "Caesar" to help him. This system was known as Tetrarchy, a rather interesting way of ruling. This system, however, did not last for long and the Roman empire was officially split into two parts at the end of the 4th century AD.

The Eastern Roman Empire, which later came to be described as the “Byzantine” empire, lasted for a thousand years, much more than the Western Roman empire. It was characterised by the a mix of Greek and Roman culture with a gradual shift towards the Greek culture ("Hellentistic" culture). This empire finally crumbled with the advent of the Ottoman Turks in the 14th Century who then gave the name Turkey and created the Ottoman empire which lasted till 20th century. Turkey infact played a significant role in the first world war and after the defeat was broken into several small countries. The present day Republic of Turkey originates from this.

 Turkey is a country which is partly Asian and partly European. It is surrounded by the the Agean sea, the Marmara sea and the Black sea. The Marmara Sea (name derived from the word "Marmar" which means Marble) and the Black Sea are connected by the Bospherous Sea – an extremely important landmark of Istanbul. Bosphoreous flows through Istanbul, splitting the city into the Asian side and the European side. The European side is further split by a small stretch of sea known as the "Golden Horn". Most of the people stay in the Asian side and travel to the European side to work. Istanbul has an extensive ferry and boat network which acts like their main public transport. Bospherous and Golden Horn also offers tourists some opportunities to do fishing and it is quite common to see people hiring a fishing line and engaging in this solitary sport on the Galata bridge across the Golden Horn.
Despite being a Muslim country, Turkey is surprisingly liberal. It was refreshing to see women without burkhas - in western-ware and working in offices (that too in steel plants!). Namaz is not compulsory, Friday is a working day, there are no embargos regarding the namaz time during the Ramzaan days.

In Istanbul, the most famous monument is Ayasofya or Hagia Sophia. This was originally a basilica church known as the "Church of Holy Wisdom". When the Ottoman Turks conquered Istanbul, they converted this into a Mosque. Fortunately they did not destroy the entire building but merely added some typical Islamic structures like the Mihrab (a structure which points towards Mecca and which serves as the Altar for the prayers) and Mibbar (a structure similar to the pulpit in a church). This monument has some rather interesting architectural constructions like its dome which is supported on “Pendentives” (Pendentives are a construction design which allows a dome to sit on top of a square base) and the forty windows below the dome which creates its famed “mystiqal light”. To be perfectly honest, I did not find these to be of great architectural grandeur. In my uneducated eyes, the detailing as well as the architecture falls far below the architecture seen in India. Hagia Sophia had some other interesting artifacts like two huge greek marble jars made from a single piece of marble and two marble candles on either side of the Mihrab. The place also had a rather photogenic cat which kept on giving poses in front of the marble jars and kept the tourists entertained.

 Just opposite the Hagia Sophia is the Blue Mosque or the Sultan Ahmed Mosque. It is known as the blue mosque due to the blue tiles on its top. It looked rather similar to Haghia Sophia and was interesting in parts. What I found amusing is that when we enter the mosque, the gatekeeper gives the visitor a plastic bag to carry the shoes and for women, a cloth to cover their head. Both of these articles have to be returned when we leave the mosque. It is, therefore, acceptable to carry the shoe with you when you enter the mosque and even when you sit for your prayers but you are not allowed to wear it!! Also, the head covering for the women was also merely a formality – most of the women were carrying it around their necks like a dupatta. Women clad in jeans or skirts or even shorts (not too many – a pity!) were allowed inside the mosque without any religious fanatic raising their eyebrows.
The area near these two mosques was known as the Hippodrome where chariot racing used to take place and was the centre of the then Byzantine civic life. It is now known as Sultanahmet square and is now the centre of Istanbul’s historical, cultural and touristic activities. It has got small eateries all around with unassuming but comfortable chairs and exquisite fruit juices. I have never tasted a better orange or pomogranade juice! There are also nice small street shops selling interesting souveniors and slightly bigger shops which sell carpets and bags. These shops make splendid “killing” of the tourist, with their friendly behaviour (they address every male tourist as “brrrotherr”), their apple tea (another unique stuff I tasted for the first time in Istanbul; wonderful!!) which is served the moment you enter the shop and unending offerings to choose from. One can spend hours roaming around this area and never get bored.
This area also boasts of some monuments of the old era – like the Obelisk of Theodosius, a bronze serpentine column and the column of Constantine. The Obelisk of Theodosius was an egyptian obelisk which used to be in front of the Karnak temple in Luxor (Egypt) and was brought to Istanbul in the 4th century AD. It is made of pink granite with hieroglyphics all over and reminded me of the obelisks which Obelix (the comics character from Asterix) used to carve. The bronze serpentine column is a green coloured eerie looking stuff with three headless snakes wrapped around each other. It had a sense of evil and reminded me of Harry Potter and the Basilisk in the chamber of secrets. There was also another obelisk which looked like a structure made of bricks which seemed to have developed damp all over!! There was also an octagonal German fountain in this area which had a flock of pigeons gathered around it to drink water!!
The Sultan Ahmed square also has the Basilica Cistern (Yerebaten Sarayi) – a huge underground chamber which can store water. It is supported by 12 X 28 pillars which have lights at the base of the pillar – giving it a very tasteful look. At the end of the Cistern, there are two pillars which has got the head of Medusa as the base. Surprisingly, the head of Medusa is rotated by 90 deg (i,e sideways) in one pillar and 180 deg (i.e upside down) in the other. They have not given any explanation to this but there were some signboards telling us about the legends of Medusa - the Gorgon who had snakes as her hair, who could turn people into stones by her look and who was killed by Perseus. Being a hard core 007 fan, I remembered that this cistern was shown in “From Russia With Love” where Bond and his contact in Istanbul uses this underground cistern to go near the Russian Consulate and spy on them!! I forgot to check where the Russian Consulate is in Istanbul but it is certainly not anywhere near this cistern. I heard that there used to be a light and sound show also in the cistern but this was closed when I visited this place. The cistern now has a small coffee shop inside which I did not get to explore.
I also had a brief look at the Topkapi palace which was walking distance from the Sultan Ahmed square. Topkapi gives a nice view of the Bosphoreous and was on my way back to the hotel. It also has a large number of museums which I could not cover partly because of lack of time and partly because most of them were closed for restoration. I took a long walk from Topkapi to the hotel along the Marmara Sea and could see the famous walls of Istanbul which were built to protect the city from invasions. They served their purposes till the gunpowder came after which, naturally, the walls could do little to protect the city.
And finally - the food. Turkish cuisine is extremey tasty and extremey unhealthy. I was told that the present generation of turks have become health conscious and the present food is no where near what they used to have earlier. The oldies were lamenting about the days when they exclusively used butter as against the now used olive oil. But even in its present form, the food will give shocks to any health conscious person. But ooh, the taste!! There was a dish called Laygana which is made with eggs and eggplant (and laced with oil ofcourse) which was to die for. They also have a dish called Meze made from mashed tomatos, onions, herbs which is normally to be tasted with Pita bread. I also tried plenty of Kebaps like Sis Kebap (Kebap made on skewers), Adana Kebap (charcoal grilled food), Beyti Kebap etc and found all of them to be very nice. Usually these are served with a herbed yogurd preparation. They also have a watery form of yogurd called Aryan – which was like a thick version of Butter Milk. For breakfast, we used to have bread with a white cheese called Peynir (sounds quite like our “Paneer”), atleast 3 types of olives and turkish coffee (awful stuff; tastes like mud). I also tried out some seafood preparations like Kalamar (squid), octopus etc and found them to be good. For sweets, they have Baklava, Helva (sounds like Halwa) etc which my friends used to swear by. I tasted a few morsels but uniformly found them to be too sweet for my taste. For drink, the turks drink Raki (a foul tasting liquor made from cloves which looks colourless but becomes white the moment you add water to it!!), Apple tea (delicious) and Turkish Coffee (no comments).
It was a nice experience but at the end of the day, it felt good to be back home.