Culture in a Cup

Food writer and Modern Spice cookbook author Monica Bhide

recently returned from visiting her family in India, and we asked her to share some glimpses of contemporary life she noticed while there. You can read her first post here.

For centuries India, particularly North India, has been a country of tea drinkers, while steaming cups of coffee were loved by the folks in South India. And then something happened. Since 2000, coffeehouses like Barista and Café Coffee Day have begun to spring up in major cities by the hundreds. They offer different types of coffees, smoothies, and snacks very much like Starbucks does. The initial reaction was interesting to watch. “The affluent young Indians will love it,” the media claimed, as they noted all the youngsters gathering at the coffeehouses. There was an outcry from lovers of Indian culture and tea–it was blasphemous for them to even think that coffee culture could be percolating here in India, sacrilegious that a tea-drinking nation could love drinking coffee. Culture watchers were quick to point out that people drinking in these fancy coffeehouses weren’t any better than the ones who drank tea off the street stalls.  

My view is a bit different.

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In my opinion–and I have been watching this closely over the past ten years– these coffeehouses aren’t about the coffee. While tea stalls provide a quick stop for the frantic in need of a hot shot, they aren’t places to gather for contemplative conversations. A Barista opened near my parents’ home in New Delhi several years ago, and as I stopped by on a daily basis during five weeks of my trip, I discovered it had culture of its own.

The early morning hours find retired older men who sit around with newspapers in hand discussing politics, their children, the new iPod Nano and their good old times. I spoke with a few of them and they told me there was nowhere else to go in this heat, and at home their wives objected–oh, the maids are cleaning, not now! So they meet here; this is their support in their old age. The afternoon finds the young adults with their laptops, and book clubs meeting to discuss the latest Jhumpa Lahiri masterpiece. As the day fades, these coffee shops become places to be seen, with teenagers gathering to discuss where to eat and what the evening holds.

They meet, they talk, they reminisce, they discuss, and they work here.

True, some of them sip the beverages offered, but it isn’t about the coffee. It is about the culture: the togetherness it has bought. Why not celebrate what it is bringing to contemporary India, instead of lamenting about what it is supposedly taking away? There are, and always will be, crowds at the local tea stalls. That is also a culture, and I don’t think it will, or should, ever go away. But this diversity is what makes India what it is today.

Photos: Above, a lovely cup of cappuccino is served at the Barista in Phoenix Mills, Mumbai. Below, a traditional tea stand in Mumbai. By Monica Bhide.