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Coffee in Pondy

Coffee on the Rocks

When my neighbor on the train from Kolkata to Chennai finally stopped snoring–20 hours into the rain-delayed journey–I wasn’t really in the mood to chat. But within minutes he caught my attention, “The south of India is different from the north,” he said. “We drink coffee down here.”

After traveling across Russia, Mongolia and China, where people are tea drinkers and coffee is at best cheap and watery but generally ends up costing more than a hotel room (and is still watery), those words were magical.

In the US, coffee is the ultimate street food. In urban centers, during rush hour, most people seem to be clutching a coffee-to-go. That doesn’t exist over here. Chai stands (the most ubiquitous morning beverage) are served roadside in glass cups which are then rinsed and reused for the next customer. Questionably hygienic but great for the environment! The morning tea break in India is a stop on the way to work with a few moments to catch up with friends and neighbors rather than a walk-to-work accessory.

Pondicherry (now officially called Puducherry), our destination in Southern India, was a French colony until the 1950s and with locals riding on bikes and chatting in French past the elegant colonnade homes that line the waterfront, Pondicherry’s colonial history didn’t seem that far past. So we felt we were well placed to quench our coffee cravings.

The Pondicherry tourist office runs a cafe overlooking the water selling small plates of food and non-alcoholic drinks. I typically take my coffee plain, but the hot humid heat coerced me into trying the Coffee on the Rocks for 50 rupees ($1) — espresso on ice with lemon. The menu didn’t disclose the secret ingredient, the item that took this coffee from merely refreshing to sublime: cassia.

Cassia bark is thicker and coarser looking than the cinnamon we commonly get in the US, although it’s a related spice and native to parts of Asia. The flavor is sweeter than our traditional cinnamon, but a little still goes a long way.

Coffee on the Rocks

  • 2 shots of espresso
  • 1 t sugar
  • 1 inch piece of cassia bark, broken into quarters
  • 2 2-inch long strips of lemon zest
  • Ice

Brew 2 shots of espresso (or strong coffee): I like mine from my Moka pot

Pour coffee over the sugar and cassia bark. Stir to dissolve sugar and muddle cassia.

Twist the lemon zest and throw it in the coffee along with a handful of ice.

Pondicherry, India

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