Kavery Nambisan’s new book Cherry Red, Cherry Black details the fascinating story of coffee in India
Kavery Nambisan was born on a coffee estate, grew up among the “twisted branches and dark green leaves of the coffee bushes”; her parents joked that she was among those children who had been “plucked off the coffee bushes.” It is therefore fitting that the surgeon’s latest book Cherry Red, Cherry Black (Bloomsbury India) is about the history of coffee in India. Written with anecdotes woven into chronology, this comprehensive look at the coffee industry reveals intriguing nuggets – the origins of the coffee terms ‘Robusta’ and ‘Arabica’; the story of how Southern India became coffee country (it’s more complex than the Baba Budan tale); how coffee made sugar popular… Kavery explores the world of coffee far beyond its cultivation via the journeys of rulers and invaders and the ways of governance and tribute to its current status as one of the most valuable legally-traded commodities in the world. With the pride of a true Kodava, she writes of how coffee cultivation in Coorg (now Kodagu) changed the social, ecological and economic nature of the land and its people, and of the planters clubs that still exist.
A large part of the book details the story of how Tata Coffee, with whom the author has been associated in her medical avatar, came to be, but its scope goes far beyond company history and personalities to showcase coffee’s ability to be the great leveller available to every layer of society, and details the journey of the bean from plant to cup. Readers will be fascinated to know that the coffee served at Starbucks is made with beans from Kodagu, Hassan and Chikmagalur and cured in Kushalnagar.
Excerpts from an interview
You speak of yourself as “almost a child plucked off a coffee plant”. How was the experience of going back with research to discover what is such an integral part of your childhood? How long has this book been in the making? Have there been any surprising learnings?
Yes, coffee has been integral to my being, but I did not consciously think about it until recently when I started to write this book. It has been a pleasure to discover the history behind coffee, and, along with it, to learn more clearly certain aspects of local history. I started to read up sometime after the middle of 2018 and wrote in 2019 but was unable to conduct some important interviews during the period when Covid came and went. After that, everything had to be ‘fast-forward.’
As for surprise learnings, yes, of course. There can be no better way of learning something new than writing about it. I learned much.
You are a proud Kodava and now live and work again in Kodagu. What aspects of life there do you enjoy most, both connected to coffee and otherwise?
I have worked as a surgeon in Kodagu for over 10 years, off and on. My husband and I built a house in a village here and it is surrounded by coffee estates that do not belong to us – so pleasure without responsibility! The tall shade trees that surround us are a blessing – with so much life going on in the branches and the undergrowth. As a doctor, I have a great rapport and a serious commitment to my neighbours, many of them being daily wage earners in the estates. I think we live a good life.
What does your own coffee cache look like? What would we find in there?
You would find a cache of roasted coffee beans (a blend of Arabica and Robusta). I roast the beans every few weeks or so and use about 10% of chicory to enhance its strength.
You’ve detailed a bewildering number of ways to prepare a cup of good coffee. Which is your favourite?
I use three methods, depending on my mood. Filter coffee (in the afternoons); the Moka pot or a rustic brew (adding coffee powder to just boiled water and letting it steep for two to three minutes) in the mornings. Always with a little milk and jaggery.
India Coffee House remains your coffee house of choice in Bengaluru. Tell us what you have there when you visit these days?
It’s a great place to hang around with friends. I always have coffee and, if peckish, an omelette or a cutlet. I have been frequenting this grand old place (although now in a changed location) from my medical college days. Satisfaction guaranteed.