It is good to be back!
As soon as we entered Tamil Nadu I noticed that temples, churches, and mosques are more abundant here than in other South Indian states. More people wear national dress. Women have jasmine flowers in their hair.
Tamil Nadu feels like home. I don’t know why. Maybe because Tamil script is the only Indian script that I am slowly managing to learn, so I can read signs, shop names, and bus routes.
We are in Chennai. The city is not as bad as Chetan Bhagat describes it in his book “2 states. The story of my marriage.” I find Chennai to be cheerful enough; there are many restaurants where you get non-vegetarian food; you hear music in many places, and it’s not all Carnatic. The episode with the autorickshaw driver in the book is typical for Chennai, however. Even Lonely Planet says that
Convincing a Chennai autorickshaw driver to use the meter is a Vatican-certified miracle; fares border on the astronomical; and post-arrival disputes over pre-agreed fares are not uncommon. Avoid paying up front, and never get into an autorickshaw before reaching an agreement.
At last we enjoy normal size cups of tea. People in Hyderabad drink tea as if it is a medicine. Their shops serve it in plastic cups that are the tiniest I’ve ever seen. I can finish such a cup in one sip but they sit with it and drink it for half an hour. You pay for it like for a medicine also.
Today I found good coffee as well. It was in the shopping street in Mambalam. I’ll explain how to find it. Go to Mambalam by train. Then, from the train station, cross the pedestrian bridge and walk in the same direction to the end of the street. Most people from the train will go that way. Just walk with the crowd which will be so dense that you feel that the population of India must indeed be not less than a billion. At the end, turn to the perpendicular street, where you will feel the aroma of coffee.
The aroma was so irresistible that I couldn’t help but turned to it like hypnotised and in a minute found myself in one of the numerous coffee shops in that street. After so many frustrations with coffee in India, I was delightedly surprised how good was the coffee at that place.
My father’s own coffee ministrations began at our local Leo Coffee House, where he went to buy coffee. While most families ended up buying preground coffee powder, Dad carefully selected raw coffee beans and demanded that they be roasted before his eyes. The coffee man, a long-suffering soul whom my father called Leo (after his shop), was considerably irked by the fact that he had served my dad for over a decade but still hadn’t gained his trust.
“I am roasting and grinding over one hundred pounds of coffee per day, and still your father thinks I don’t know my job,” he said bitterly every time he saw me.
“That Leo is color-blind”, Dad would retort when I mentioned Leo’s grievances. “The coffee has to be roasted so that it is in between brown and black. If it is brown, it is underroasted and won’t give enough decoction; if it is black, the coffee will have a burnt flavor. It has to be perfectly roasted between brown and black, and Leo can never get it right.”
The moment he got up, even before brushing his teeth, Dad would light the stove and boil a kettle of water. And there I would find him with his tongue sticking out as he carefully measured two spoonfuls of coffee powder into the brass filter and poured boiling water over it.
As the coffee decoction dripped, Dad would busy himself getting the davara tumbler ready. Dad’s davara was like a miniature stainless steel Crock-Pot with a lip that made pouring easy. The tumbler was a stainless steel glass with a lip. Dad would pour the decoction into the davara, then mix in some piping hot milk until it turned caramel in color. He would measure exactly half a spoon of sugar, enough to remove the bitterness without adding any unnecessary sweetness. Then the real drama began.
Dad would pour the steaming coffee from the tumbler into the davara and gradually increase the distance between the two so that the coffee frothed and spread its pleasant aroma throughout the room. Back and fourth he would pour, arching a hand above his head and another by his hip. The coffee would fizz and froth and dance until its surface was covered with moonlike craters and bubbles. Only then would my father take a satisfying sip of his favourite beverage.
– Shoba Narayan. Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes.