Food, for me, was Tamil Brahmin cuisine for a very long time. In my family, the people who claimed that they were not very rigorous about their food preferences only meant that they even ate Bisibelebaat or Palakkad cuisine sometimes. In this milieu, I felt like a radical extremist since I enjoyed 'north Indian' food and was even willing to go without rice for a couple of meals. If you are younger than 30, I must tell you that this was a huge step for a Tam in the seventies. Of course I have written about this before.

And then I boarded a Pan Am flight in 1986 for my first ever trip abroad lasting two and a half months. Just the American accent was enough to intimidate me those days; it was worse because on this flight, for the leg till Frankfurt, the flight attendants were mostly European. They hardly smiled, spoke English like German and looked like they would throw you out of the window if they didn't like you. And it was pretty clear they didn't like anyone on this flight full of noisy, unruly Indians. Seated next to me was a couple from Gujarat . They seemed like seasoned travelers. At meal time they were served an Indian meal while everything on my plate looked unfamiliar except large leaves of cabbage (actually lettuce). I couldn't believe that this passed off as lunch in any language. I timidly requested the flight attendant for the same meal as the Gujarati couple.
'Sorry ma'm, it's all we 've got.'
My travel agent had missed to mention my meal preference!

I did not realize that this was just the beginning of the horror story until I had to suffer meal after meal of burger (with the meat removed), French fries and coleslaw on the days we traveled. I had a choice of staying in the apartment and having rice with baked beans or yoghurt or stay hungry and travel. We traveled and took pictures before every monument and tourist attraction until finally I was happy to come back home to proper meals. No wonder I only have hazy memories of that trip and don't recognize the monuments I am standing in front of.

Twenty years later I traveled again to this country and this time it was all very different. I was prepared to try exotic food ( as long as it had no meat) and they served me Pulao and Rajma for dinner and idli and upma for breakfast on a Lufthansa flight. In Seattle I stayed with my cousin who made sure that there was Sambar and curried vegetable at every meal. When we went out we ate at Udupi restaurants serving Puri/bhaji and Masala Dosa!
Thanks to the IT revolution and Y2k problem in no small measure I suppose! India had arrived - it was now a real country with real people and real food and not just some land of sadhus and snakes, where people had OM for breakfast and meditated! Airlines cared for the Indian traveler and his meal preferences. You didn't have to suffer Air India just for their food. You could buy and make Indian food right here -it was available and affordable.

But still there was one thing that I missed - Tea. Starbucks had one type of sweet tea and in the tearooms we were presented with a menu of several choices of herbal, green and black teas. While they had great snob value and assured ego-satisfaction, all I craved for was a nice Masala Chai. I was even willing to try Coffee with little luck. Yes, in the land of Starbucks we missed COFFEE - South Indian coffee. Starbucks gave us choices like we never had before and they were willing to make it all just the way we wanted. Only we didn't want any of it because they were either too strong or too watery, or too frothy or too hot. In every case it was too much - even the smallest cup ( whose idea was it to call a small cup 'tall'?) was a lot and we always ended up wasting more than half. Something was missing and it did not feel like the coffee back home even when we picked up coffee powder from the Indian shop. May be the chicory content.

How do the South Indians manage without their daily dose of South Indian Filter coffee, I wondered. My cousin did not care for coffee or tea but I am sure that is not the case with the other million or two out there. You can take a Tamilian or a Kannadiga to Starbucks but you cannot make him drink the coffee for sure? Or had they resigned to their fate, admitted defeat and prepared their palates to an acquired taste for one or other of the Starbucks coffee? Or were they getting their coffee supplies from India regularly? It was a mystery till the time I boarded the flight back to Bangalore and I made mental note to pack a few boxes of Lipton tea if I traveled to this country again.

Last month I was packing again to come to this country when my son asked me to get a coffee filter. He said he was tired of Starbucks coffee and wanted ‘our coffee’ in the mornings. So I asked him if he wanted some coffee powder too. He said “No. My friend Soundari has experimented with the coffee available here and discovered that a combination of Ethiopian Sidamo and Sumatra coffee (1:1)from Starbucks ground to a fine blend ("Turkish" grind for electric filter) tastes exactly like the coffee you get in Chennai.’
JUGAD, wow! I should have known – the true Indian spirit! I should have guessed!
And to answer your question, yes she is right. I even wrote this post while sipping on a strong cup of the blend that tastes just like the 'one shtrong filter kaapi' at my local SLV restaurant. Thank you Soundari.
So what is your favorite blend to get your coffee just the way your mom makes it?