Story of an Infidel Drink: Origin of Coffee

O Coffee! Thou dost dispel all care, thou are the object of desire to the scholar. This is the beverage of the friends of God.” –
An Arabic poem form 1511 AD

Almost everyone around the globe sips a cup of coffee to kick-start their day. But my love for coffee goes all the way back to my college days. I wasn’t a coffee lover back then but it was always around as a great conversation starter. Be it a hot cup of Cappuccino or Mocha or even a large glass of icy Cold Coffee mixed with ice cream.

As a college kid in Ranchi, I used to live on a tight budget and hence going to a fancy coffee date with my girlfriend was not something I would pick. But on certain occasions, to show my pent-up affection for her, I used to take her to Café Coffee Day (perhaps the only nice coffee store of Ranchi in 2009). We used to have long sweet conversations over a cuppa.

India Post in collaboration with Coffee Board launched the new Coffee Flavoured Stamps
Coffee scented postage stamp

It was the same Americano/Black coffee which I resorted, to keep my sanity alive. I never used to like black coffee as it was bitter with no flavour or so but then it used to calm me down.

My love for coffee reached its tipping point when I moved to Delhi in 2011. As they say, a lot can happen over a cup of coffee, a lot did happen. Today if you ask me about my favourite go-to places in New Delhi, to have a nice brewed coffee, it would be Blue Tokai Café, Café Tesu, and The Brew Room. Why? Because they have amazing coffee and I think they know what they are serving!

But where did this coffee come from? And, in fact, how did it come to India since we were not coffee drinkers and as discussed in my last post, we were not tea drinkers either!

It is said that Coffee came to India from the Arab world and strange enough to believe that it was a smuggled product. A pilgrim called Baba Budan also known as Hazrat Shah Janab Allah Magatabi smuggled seven seeds ( seven is considered to be a lucky number in Islam) of coffee in his tunic while he was coming back from Mecca. The saint sowed the seeds in his garden near a cave in Chandragiri and the rest, of course, is history. The hills called as Chandra Drona in the Puranic age are now called Baba Budan Hills, named after the seer. Fresh beans were illegal to export from Arab in those days. In fact, Arabs initially used to trade roasted or powdered coffee only.

Now we know how it came to India but the story of the origin of coffee is further fascinating and full of twist and turns.

There is a popular legend called “The Dancing Goats”.

Kaldi and his dancing goats

The story is maybe a thousand years old, where an Ethiopian goatherd named Kaldi noticed an unusual behaviour in his goats. The goats were dancing and frisking by eating the red berries and leaves of an unfamiliar tree. His quench for an answer to this behaviour made him try some leaves and the next moment he was in trans along with his goats. The energy was rushing through his veins all day long. This is literally the “happiest food/beverage story”, I have come across. His family (him and the goats) were probably the happiest family in the whole of Ethiopia.

But we find two other narratives regarding the acceptance of these berries in the world.

The first story tells us that, sometime later, a monk passing by Kaldi’s goats observed this unusual behaviour of Kaldi and the goats. When Kaldi told him about the berries the monk decided to take few, thinking that it may help his monk community focus on prayers. After trying some of them himself, the monk dried the leaves and made a brew out of these berries which later were distributed to all the other monks of his community.

The second story tells us that Kaldi brought these berries to his wife to share his discovery. It was his wife, who told him to take the berry to the nearest community of Monk, but the monks rejected these beans and deemed the berries to be the “Devil’s work,” and threw the berries into a nearby fire. Fire roasted the berries up to an extent that it gave powerful and irresistible aroma which spread in the whole of the monastery.. The Chief Monk ordered the grains to be taken out and placed the covered pot with hot water to preserve their goodness. That night, for some strange reason, monks decided to drink that rich fragrant water (brew) which helped them meditate and pray during their nocturnal devotions.

But, one thing we know for sure is that it was Kaldi and his goats who first discovered these amazing coffee beans.

The debate around the original name of coffee is that whether it was the Arabs who adopted these berries first and grew coffee trees on nearby mountains and called it qahwa (Arabic for ‘wine’) or it was known as “kaffa” which was a region in Ethiopia.

Soon coffee became the most popular drink.The rich enjoyed this drink during special ceremonies and coffee rooms whereas the rest of mass would end up in Kaveh Kanes (coffee houses). It is said that with the opening of trade between the Arab world and the West via Venice, the European Catholics were introduced to this caffeinated drink by Muslims Since then Coffee beans became a lucrative trade item.

According to a report in The Wire, “as its popularity grew, coffee became notorious as the trouble-making brew and coffee houses gained a reputation for “improper past times” and seditious conversations. In fact, Sultan Murad IV, a ruler of the Ottoman Empire, banned all coffee houses and declared the consumption of coffee a capital offense (along with that of alcohol). Many of the rulers themselves were however big fans of coffee and such bans usually didn’t last long. Coffee drinking persisted despite the oppressive measures because it gave people a simple way to remain charged all day long without any apparent side-effects. Coffeehouses also served a social function(like salons during French Revolution) and allowed people to get together for conversation, entertainment, business and irreverent political chatter. So important did the brew become in Turkey that a woman could apparently seek divorce on grounds of insufficient coffee!”

Coffee in its initial form was known to be a “Muslim Drink” and it was them who made this brew popular, first in Europe and then the to the coffee houses in London. These small shops became the meeting point for intellectuals or just place to catch up with storytellers, travellers and traders.

A 17th-century depiction of a coffee house in London

Coffee was politicized to such an extensive levels that the Catholic group had to “baptise” the beans. The Catholic Pope of Venice and Rome was pressurized to criticise coffee’s association with Islam. Upon tasting a hot cup of coffee, Pope Clement VIII (1536-1605) said “This Satan’s drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it”.

Today coffee has moved beyond religion and sedition, it is the most commonly consumed drink available all around the world with different flavour and textures. Coffee is also used in cakes and cookies and other confectionery items.  Because what else can bring that zing in life except for these magic beans?

So the next time you pick up your hot cup of coffee, do think about the times coffee travelled to reach your favourite Coffee shop.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Foods seem so much fancier once you know their origin!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Food and Streets by Sadaf says:

      I completely agree with you. We learn to appreciate food more.


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