It was my first week in Bangalore, and I was still adjusting to the time difference. I was actually a little proud that I was functional and awake given that it was something like 1AM my time.
“Want some coffee?” my host asked.
“No thanks, I’m fully caffeinated for now.” I replied.
“Even if you don’t want a coffee, you should come see how it’s prepared,” my host grinned at me expectantly.
“Um, OK.” I relented. I dutifully followed him through twisting and turning corridors until we arrived at the coffee counter.
There were three men at the counter. I watched as they made coffee for all the people in line in front of us. It was quite a production.
The first man reached up to a shelf for a ceramic cup and placed it on the counter. The cups were bigger than a demitasse, but much smaller than my typical ginormous supersized vat-o-coffee mug.
The second man then flipped the valve on the coffee maker allowing a dark, rich liquid — thicker than espresso — to flow into a small metal pitcher. He then upended the metal pitcher into the cup.
The third man had the best job of all. He was the real showman. This was what my host wanted me to see. He began by dipping a saucepan into a huge steaming pot of milk sunk into the counter. He then lifted it high and poured it back in a long stream. Dip. Pour. Dip. Pour. As he poured the milk back into the pot, it frothed.
When the third man judged the milk sufficiently foamy, he poured it into the prepared cup, careful to let just the milk out. No foam. Not yet. Once the level in the cup reached an invisible boundary, he poured the rest of the liquid back into the steaming pot, leaving just the foam in the saucepan. Then he gently tilted the saucepan over the cup, allowing just the right amount of foam to cover the center of the near-caramel-colored coffee mixture. The result was a foamy white top surrounded by a ring of darker froth around the edges. As he placed the dipper back across the pot of milk, the second man ceremoniously handed the patron their coffee mug, handle first.
Several people were in line, so I got to see the performance several times. Each time the team of three executed with precision. The resulting cups of coffee were identical in appearance: same volume in the cup, same amount of foam on top, same colors.
The milk pourer also seemed to have a quality control role. If he decided the color wasn’t quite dark enough, he would signal – almost imperceptibly – to the metal pitcher guy, who would then add a little more of the thick, dark coffee.
Of course, after such a performance, I had to have one of my own. Receiving my mug reverently, I took a sip. The drink was nothing like the coffee I usually get at home. The froth tickled a little. The drink tasted sweet and rich and just a little exotic. It was a bit like a latte, but richer and sweeter. I was hooked.
Visiting the coffee counter became a ritual for me. I drank many, many of those coffees while in India.
One day toward the end of my visit, the person in front of me requested unsweetened milk in his coffee. When it was my turn and I stepped up to the counter, the first man confirmed what I wanted: “Normal coffee, madam?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied, smiling. “Normal coffee please.” Even if the beverage I was enjoying was not normal coffee to me, it was normal here. Sweet. Rich. Foamy. Normal. Once again, normal is in the eye of the beholder.