Tag Archives: india

How Seven Beans Changed the World: Indian Coffee Part 1

Seven coffee beans were enough

It was the 17th century. An Indian priest, Baba Budan, went on a pilgrimage to the Middle East. He had had coffee and was so enamored of the drink that he wanted to take it back home with him to India. But the coffee bean and the plants were carefully guarded. Any beans sent outside the Middle East were boiled and sterilized so no coffee could be harvested.

Risking his life, Baba Budan strapped seven beans to his chest and smuggled them to the foothills of the Western Ghats in South India. The beans were planted and the bushes thrived. The area of Chikmagalur became the birth place of Indian coffee.

It was a very good thing that Baba Budan did not have to go through an x-ray machine at Customs because coffee then spread to the rest of the world from India.

But the story of coffee goes back another 500-600 years. Legend has it that a goatherd observed his flock eating some red berries after which they became very energetic. He took some of the berries to the village priest. The priest boiled the red berries in water and had a sip. Coffee was born.

Coffee cherries ripe for harvest

A coffee nursery

Saplings

Today, while Indian coffee is very popular in India, especially in the South where it is grown, it is virtually unknown outside of the country. About 75% of Indian coffee is grown in the Southern state of Karnataka in Chikmagalur, Sakleshpur, and Coorg. India mostly exports coffee to the Eurozone and very little finds its way into the US.

Even with a sizeable domestic market, the life of coffee planters is not secure. Fortunes are made and lost with huge fluctuations in the coffee market. When Vietnam ramped up its coffee production, prices for Indian coffee dipped low. My aunts and uncles who live in Sakleshpur and have coffee estates say that another big problem today is that labor is very hard to get despite offering high wages and other benefits.

Many spices, such as pepper, vanilla and cardamom are grown along with coffee. This gives the estate owner some additional revenue. But the market for spices is not a stable one either. The prices for vanilla for example, a labor intensive spice as it has to be fertilized by hand, have gone as far up as 15,000 Rupees per Kg down to just a couple of thousand Rupees per Kg.

Coffee estates are beautiful and are a lot of fun to visit especially during harvest time. The coffee from my family’s estates is shade grown. This means that there is a diversity of tall trees providing cover to the coffee bushes below. The trees of course attract all kinds of birds. We’ve even spotted peacocks!

While coffee tourism has started, it is in its infancy and there are only a few coffee estates that offer home stays and tours of their estates. So if you are ever in South India, I’d encourage you to get off the well-worn tourist track and visit one of these estates to learn more about one of the world’s most popular brews.

Coffee estates are beautiful

Coffee pickers tallying up how much they picked so they can get paid

Pepper, cardamom, vanilla, oranges etc are also typicallly grown in coffee plantations

Gorgeous pepper vines are everywhere in a coffee estate!

You'll see all kinds of chili plants on estates as well

p.s. I’m back after traveling in South India for almost 6 weeks. I hope to get posting more regularly again.

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Romantic Red Hills in the Nilgiris

The bus, a very comfortable “Volvo” bus came to an abrupt stop and the driver yelled gruffly that it was the last stop. It was 5:35 in the morning and we had arrived at the Ooty bus stop 25 minutes early. I hadn’t thought to put on my warm fleece layer since a driver from the Red Hills resort was supposed to pick me up. Bad decision.

Even at this early hour, there was a fair amount of activity. Buses came and went, auto rickshaws waited patiently for passengers, and street vendors had already set up shop. My ride finally came and off we went, both front windows all the way down. That might have reduced the wind shield from fogging up too much but it left me cold!

Ooty is in the Nilgiri hills and the town is situated at an altitude of roughly 8000 ft. It is the premier hill station destination for South Indians wanting to escape the heat of summer. It is also a choice place for newly wedded couples to honeymoon. My destination, Red Hills, was only 25 kilometers from Ooty but took almost two hours and included a car ride followed by a 4 wheel drive for the really bad roads. Red Hills is really remote. And simply gorgeous.

The beautiful white washed villa was built by a British man over a hundred years ago. The current owners who also run the surrounding tea plantation, have built additional rooms and a large hall into the place. This quiet and romantic location is not only perfect for honeymooners but also for small weddings! There is even a small Krishna temple on the grounds.

Hiking through the forests. That's a pepper vine on the tree.

The British introduced tea cultivation into India in the 18th century. The three major regions that grow tea in India are Assam, Darjeeling and the Nilgiris. While all are black teas, the flavor and aromas differ considerably. Tea from the Nilgiris, when brewed, has a lovely dark gold color and a very light taste with pleasing aroma. The Badaga people of the area who were once livestock owners and organic farmers are now the tea producers and most still stick to organic farming.

Nilgiris black tea, light and aromatic

The owners of Red Hills, Mr. Vijay Kumar and Mrs. Banu were gracious hosts. I was welcomed into the kitchen and had many opportunities to learn the style of cooking of their community. The next few posts will cover more about the cuisine of the Badaga community and a few typical recipes that are very easy to make anywhere in the world.

For now, I’ll leave you with the proper technique of brewing tea. If you have tea from the Nilgiris or from Darjeeling (or for that matter, most teas), I learned that it should never be boiled. These are light and delicate teas. Heat water till it comes to a rolling boil. Remove from heat, add 1 teaspoon tea for every two mugs, and steep for 3-4 minutes. A slice of fresh lime in the tea gives it a refreshing touch.

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Bangalore City Market

Bangalore is India’s IT and call center hub. There is now an industrial suburb of Bangalore called Electronic City. In the midst of all the shiny and modern buildings that are coming up, it was heartening to see old style commerce in the heart of old Bangalore, in the K.R. Market. It is named after the Wodeyaar king Krishnarajendra but more commonly known as City Market.

It’s been more than four years since I was last in India. It all looks so familiar but also so very different from the India I grew up in. I have almost six weeks to visit family and friends and travel around South India. To follow my updates from the road more regularly, you can follow my Facebook feed.

I visited the City Market today at 10am. All the hustle and bustle of the dawn wholesale market had died down and the vendors had settled down in their spots to sell to ordinary people, to you and me. It was still a riot of activity and color. Fortunately, the vendors loved getting their pictures taken. Here is a photo essay. I hope to head back to the market another time for an early morning visit.

Hills of variously hued kumkum, the powder that women apply to their forehead and head

Flowers for worshiping, decorating and fixing in women's hair

Beautiful flowers

The flower market

Diyas or little clay lamps

Everyone wanted their picture taken!

A laundry business in one corner of the market uses parked two wheelers instead of clotheslines.

A lovely, and shy, lady selling oranges in the fruit market

A thriving market in the heart of Bangalore

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