Cross your TEAS: discovering my own taste for coffee and tea in India.

“I can’t actually say I like coffee; I need it” is how I describe to friends my morning fix, once I was older and unswayed by the taste of others. I had realized that caffeine was more of an addiction than a pleasure. The absence of the drug in the morning is the only thing that gives me a splitting headache, which means that such withdrawl symptoms are legally, even pleasantly avoidable.

When younger and more susceptible to other’s taste, I made sure I had the best coffee I could buy and the best Italian contraption with which to make it, convincing myself of the pleasure of doing things the right way.

Except something was wrong.

I was raised the old-fashioned way of not making too many opinions about one’s tastes and aversions. The discipline of a childhood in which I had to eat everything on my plate without complaint has given me the ability to deal with most anything, even if I do not necessary I like it — or the person. Such discipline has been rewarding in life, because it also had other ramifications, whereby I am able to complete tasks regardless of whether or not I like doing so. But it does have the drawback that some analysis can get deferred to others. And although those others told me I was drinking the best, I realized later that I didn’t actually like espresso. It was too bitter, too strong for my taste, but I got used to it, going through phases of preferring cappuccino, using milk in the mornings to provide a backdrop to at least enjoy the rich flavors. I just drank it to keep going.

Although I find their coffee too strongly roasted to be pleasant — and, after years abroad, I find consuming large quantities of anything in big tumblers comically tacky — I will always be grateful to Starbucks for changing habits and really bad American coffee. But it was in Brazil that I started enjoying the beverage a little more when made in the traditional way that is no secret whatsoever: just pour a lot of hot water over a lot of coffee through a cotton filter. Done. I realized there was a bit more water to distribute the flavor of the coffee on the tongue than espresso, yet it wasn’t diluted as in the coffee-tea that Brazilians pejoratively refer to as the almost transparent coffee preparation of the US. My natural preference was apparently a harbinger of the subsequent craze for hand-drip coffee, once everyone had tired of the espresso fad, freeing me — and I suspect many others– from pretending to like the chalky bitterness of espresso.

The nice thing about getting older is that you start not to care about what people think of your taste, so I can now say with conviction — after surviving all the coffee fads, including Nespresso — that I finally found what I consider to be the best in coffee. Baristas forgive me, or Starbucks pay me for scouting: it’s Indian filter coffee.


If it becomes the next global fad, you heard it here first!

In South India, I was surprised that there was none of the compulsive chai drinking, with the sweet smell of boiling milk, sugar and black tea wafting into the streets as it does in North India at all hours. In the South, it was coffee over tea, traditional drunk as if chai, the way it is made heavily laden with milk. It would not be too unlike Brazilian coffee, were it not for the the unique metal filter of the coffee, and a distinct flavor that I recognized, but couldn’t place.

It was chicory, kicking up memories of a New Orleans breakfast with beignets. The root of the plant native to France, which has a coffee taste, was roasted and used to replace or to mix with coffee to stretch supplies in case of shortage during the times of colonization, if not simply used to mellow out the taste of lower-grade coffee. I like it. It lends a roundness to coffee, cutting any bitterness.

“Bitterness?” responded an indignant Italian friend, horrified by my ignorance, who immediately frog-marched me into the café of a Neapolitan family. “Oh! Got it! That’s espresso!” I admitted, surrendering in defeat, smiling while looking downward. Needless to say, my friend proved his point and beamed triumphantly. The espresso was truly delicious, devoid of bitterness.

Just because a taste is revealed doesn’t necessarily mean that it will become the object of discrimination. I continue not to care much about coffee. But it was another revelation, however, which changed my opinion about tea. My sister instructed me not to bring water to a rolling boil when making tea, and the difference was immediately appreciated. I realized I had only ever prepared it incorrectly, burning the leaves into bitterness, which is probably the reason why I had never really cared much for tea.

To make a long story of years of travel in India short, I am now fascinated by tea, thereby diversifying my caffeine addiction and creating a true object of my desire.

For some it is wine, others restaurants, carpets, clothes or cars. I even know some guys who gear their powers of discrimination and consumption towards watches, whereas there is that uncanny fascination of some women with shoes and handbags. I try not to criticize, because I think everyone has a certain object of desire that is coveted. If so, I guess that means that I will always find money for the finest tea, whether black, green, or white. No visit to my beloved Old Delhi goes without stopping into the original Daryaganj boutique of Mr. Sanjay Kapur’s Aap Ki Pasand for the season’s latest.

But my taste in tea is also divergent. Despite always taking home some of the renown teas of Darjeeling, I have found leaves of South India’s Nilgiri region more unique, varied in both green and black. I recently held a tasting here in Brazil where guests remained divided among tastes from the various traditional regions of India, which brings us to our most important reminder: “De gustibus non est disputandum,” I shouted the Latin predecessor of the popular Brazilian saying ‘gosto não se discute’, meaning ‘one does not argue over taste’, more often translated as ‘there is no accounting for taste’.

Something to be remembered, especially when maturing enough not to be embarrassed about one’s own taste.


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A native of Chicago, Ricky Toledano has lived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for over twenty years as a writer, translator and teacher. [a]multipicity is multi-lingual collection of reflections through the humanities.

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