The aroma of coffee beans was one of the earliest smells to intoxicate me as a child – such was its flamboyant richness. That, and the lush sight of frothy white milk becoming creamier as it mixed with the nut-brown coffee decoction, served in steel tumblers, was perfect happiness.
It is a memory shared by many Indians living in the southern states, the main coffee growing as well as drinking regions in the country.
The pleasure that the beverage gave was so intense that it never occurred to me that coffee could have originated anywhere but in India.
Then came Hollywood films. The glass decanter with black coffee that comes to the aid of the harassed hero with a loosened tie or heroine, with cigarette in shaking hands, was a must in every film.
That was when a slight doubt arose in my mind as it must have in the minds of audiences the world over: maybe coffee originated in America, for they drank it and filmed it with such style!
I have recently come to know that I was wrong on both counts. My childhood memories as well as my impressionable mind had prevented me from actually exploring the coffee trail, as the well-known nutritionist and food historian K.T Achaya has done in his fascinating work, ‘Indian Food Companion: A Historical Companion’.
It is said that the earliest coffee plant may have evolved in Ethiopia, and possibly, only the leaves were chewed. About 700 years ago, the coffee plant made its way to Yemen, then southern Arabia.
Arab traders carried the coffee seeds with them. Four hundred years ago, these seeds made their appearance in south Asia, including India and Sri Lanka, and Europe, too. The first plantation in Brazil was set up a little less than 300 years ago, in 1727.
There is an amazing story of how coffee started being grown in a big way in India. Around 1720, a pious Muslim, Baba Budan, returned from Mecca with seven coffee seeds.
He planted these seeds outside his cave, in the hills of Chikmagalur, in south India (now in Karnataka). It is said that all the coffee plants growing there, descended from the plants that grew out of those seven seeds.
That area as well as the Nilgiri Hills, in the Western Ghats, soon became the centre of the coffee plantation industry in India, led by the British rulers of the time. It continues thus to this day.
Hundred years ago, cakes of coffee powder were to be found in villages all over south India. The cakes were added to boiling water, and when the coffee powder settled below, the coffee drink was had with sugar and jaggery.
Times change and tastes change. Today, many have coffee for its taste, while some have coffee for the smart image it creates. But for the true coffee drinker, the world is made up of only two kinds of people; those who drink coffee (the chosen ones) and those unfortunate ones who do not.