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.

Culture in a cup.jpgFor 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.

Tea TimeIn 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. 


  1. Jennifer Romanchak
    October 7, 2009, 3:34 pm

    Though I have never been to India, I am a fan of both travel AND coffee so I found this post to be a great read. I’m actually a barista at the Starbucks near my home, and I cannot describe how true it is that it’s about so much more than the coffee. Though it’s tasty, I think the culture really surpasses the coffee as a reason for people keep coming back. Coffee shops in general have an ambiance about them that’s so warm and inviting that you can’t help but want to spend your time there. Great piece. :)

  2. Louise Heal
    October 6, 2009, 2:47 pm

    I couldn’t agree more – I first visited India in ’94 when coffee was mainly available in 5-star hotels. In 2008 in Assam (yes, the tea state!), Cafe Coffee Day did as much business as the chai-wallah outside on the pavement with his cart.
    Does it ruin things? Well, I don’t think so. India has always been a land of extremes and this is just one more example.

  3. Carolina
    October 6, 2009, 9:21 am

    I liked this post even better than Monica’s pervious post. Definitely a good addition to Intelligent Travel :)

  4. Subhash from Inn at Delhi B&B
    October 4, 2009, 6:21 pm

    I would agree with you! I am one of the “retired old people” – as you put it- who frequent coffee shops when able to!
    The only reason, I do that is becuz they provide some decent sitting space unlike road side “chai wala”!
    I am going strong at 72 years of age & don’t consider myself old, though other people, yourself included, do!
    BTW, I am young enough to run a busy B&B in Delhi -visit it next time you are there & see for yourself!

  5. Manmohan Arora
    October 4, 2009, 12:16 am

    Nice piece. This new coffee culture provides an opportunity for people to meet and ‘hang around’ in groups or singly, and a place ‘to chill’. Like you say, it is not about coffee. It is here to stay.

  6. Ramin Ganeshram
    October 2, 2009, 8:52 pm

    I enjoyed this a great deal. I myself have watching a coffee house culture unfold in Trindad & Tobago, where half the population is of Indian descent. Also a British colony, T&T is a nation of tea drinkers both because of its Indian population but because of the colonial influence. Yet, coffee grows there. Never revered the local coffee was bitter stuff that did not even approach the worthiness in a connoisseur’s consideration. On my last trip, this spring, a series of Starbucks-like coffee bars opened up called “Rituals” and the coffee is a poor imitation of the original. As yet, a coffee culture like you describe in the Indian coffee houses has not yet arisen…it will be interesting to watch what happens in India as a potential cue as to what might happen in other developing nations around the highly European (and American) habit of coffee.

  7. Roz Cummins
    October 2, 2009, 12:20 pm

    I think these new coffeehouses are functioning like pubs, a place for people to gather and chat. I’ve noticed that there are a lot of older men at the local Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonalds in the morning here in Boston as well, for just the reasons you mentioned: their wives don’t want them hanging around the house all day, or they just want to get away from home for a bit and see other retired men. That cup of cappuccino with the face in it is really something!”

  8. Jane Kelly
    October 2, 2009, 11:45 am

    Lovely piece – wish it could have been longer! For instance, what kind of snacks do the coffee shops sell – Indian or more Western style? So true that traditionalists resent any progress, ignoring that their traditions were all developments from previous ways of life.