I am looked upon like a bit of a stranger when I visit my relatives and it is coffee time. While their tastebuds are getting ready for a treat alerted by the smell of fresh decoction dripping down the filter and the smell of milk put to boil, I ruin the atmosphere by declaring that I want tea.The shock on some of the faces might make you think that I just announced that I was converting to another religion. People who know that I am a fairly reasonable person try to see the reason behind such a stupid choice. They gently ask me if there is a health reason.They feel let down when I say "No, I love tea." Silence follows as their thoughts trail along their stunned expressions in invisible subtitles: "how could you?" "You, traitor" "Et tu Usha?!" "Are you OK?"

Waking up to the aroma of true brew (NOT BRU!) South Indian Filter coffee is my earliest memory - perhaps this was a time I was still in my mother's womb. And this was a tradition I proudly carried on after marriage. One of the beliefs in our tribe is that a girl's culinary skills need no further proof than her ability to brew a good cup of filter coffee and a potful of Rasam. I passed with flying colours on both counts.Each time fresh milk would be boiled and fresh aromatic decoction brewed, I'd "warm the cockles of their heart". You should have heard the proud and smug look on my mother in law's face when visitor's would come to see the new bride and she would tell me to make coffee for them. I was their star daughter in law , a jewel in their crown.

And then fate intervened when i was posted to new Delhi for my first job. The first day at work and it was 10:30. The canteen boy placed a cup of coffee on my table and I hungrily took one sip of it and nearly threw up. What was That? It tasted like poison for sure! A spoon of instant coffee in a cup of thick milk and three spoons of sugar!I spent the rest of the morning fighting a head ache and contemplating the wording of my resignation letter. In the evening I discussed this with a close friend and she said ,"Try tea. It is difficult to spoil a cup of tea unlike coffee." So I cheated for the first time just to save my job.What started out of necessity became a passionate affair in the years to come and soon I could not stand the smell of coffee!

Now Tea, for me, is not a beverage. It is a mood, it is a spiritual thing. I drink it not to shake off lethargy or kickstart my brains. It is not a ritual but a rite and I drink it to celebrate, to savour the moment, to relax, to pamper myself. Tea moments are special when the world around me ceases to exist. Those are moments when I am there and tea is there and the moment exists. Nothing else.

As the japanese say "Zencha ichimi," - Tea is Zen.

One of the contemporary Tamil poets, Vairamuthu,my favourite, has written a whole ode to Tea. Please read it; it is called: Alukoru kOpai.

I have tried a rough translation below but it is tough to capture the essence of Tea or the beauty of Vairamuthu's words in a translation:

Ode to Tea
(Alukoru kOppai by Vairamuthu)

Tea times are flash festivals.
Teacup is a compact shrine
Tea is an accessible God,on call to grant your desires.

Firing up the lips and caressing the tongue with warmth
stroking each bud to wake up to its taste
Sweet and faintly bitter
as it descends down the throat
the blood vessels flare up like blooming buds;
brushing past the heart
like a romantic brush against
the fringe of a lover’s sari.

Arriving in the intestines, it ignites the switches in the brain
and the soul is near salvation.

Tea embodies the five elements.
Earth that has seeped all over the leaf through the roots
Water that has lost itself in the essence of the leaf
Fire that made the sweet brew
A waft of air announcing the aroma of the tender leaf
Sky that had washed the leaf in tiny droplets of rain
The five elements locked up in a cup that bubbles with Tea.

But folks
you do not know how to drink Tea.

You stare elsewhere without looking at its golden hue
You chatter empty words without listening to its bubbles

Drinking tea is not a ritual like kissing a wife of years.
Every sip is a hungry kiss of new love;
Should you not,then,close your eyes
and kiss your tea?

Locking lips with the loved cup
as you take a noisy sip
you must lose yourself and transcend the present
in a momentary death
and rise to the region between
the sky and earth and wander among clouds
and then...
fall back with a thud
again on this earth

You, who do not grasp the essence of tea
how will you understand
my poem
that waits last in your line
palm against its cheek?

34 Responses
  1. Pongo Usha, you broke our hearts :) Just kidding. At Adithi's Kitchen, when you enthusiastically said "Tea will do", I was thinking you were just being polite :)

    I have a bit of love hate relationship with coffee. I love the taste when its hot, but it gives off this stale smell when it goes even slightly cold. And anytime I fall sick or even during my pregnancy, I couldn't stand the smell or taste of coffee.

  2. Usha Says:

    P: Hehehe.
    Ya, coffee has to be just so and then again,its smell can be nauseating at times especially when it is cold. I know what you mean.

    But this whole post was an intro to Vairamuthu's poem. How did you like it? or did it get lost in translation?
    (Hope he doe not sue me!)

  3. Altoid Says:

    Hehehe Usha, coincidentally "filter coffee brewing" is my first memory of home. And it surprises me to realise that I have come a long way since then. No longer am I particular about drinking filter coffee or miss it to any extent. This, coming from a household, where coffee in fractions of a cup is being made all hours of the day.

    It has now come to one cup of coffee, of any kind, tea will do too, for the morning start and one tea in the evening. And when I see my sister continuing to be such a coffee addict, particular about "filter coffee", makes me wonder.....about how I seemed to wean away from it so easily!

    Anyway, didnt mean to make a mini-post...but surely an interesting read, and the Vairamuthu poem(atleast from what I understood) was a good read.

  4. Usha Says:

    Altoid: Yes people ask me the same Q:How I managed to convert so easily. This time while at Mercer Island my sister was in agony not being able to have filter coffee (and this in starbucks country !)Finally she was thrilled to have her cup of heaven in new Jersey. her whole attitude to life changed.hehehe
    I am sorry that I could not capture the beauty of Vairamuthu's words for you.

  5. lovely! and if someone doesnt like tea, I am sure your words would make them fall in love! :)

  6. S! Says:


    There is nothing quite like a Darjeeling second flush or even a muscatel, though I'm more than a trifle surprised that you do not like coffee anymore. The coffee in the South is fantastic, as are some of the cappuccino brews out of non-chain coffee shops here in the US.

    So, outside of me, you're the only one to have written a post on tea. Welcome to the coterie!


  7. Usha Says:

    Anisha: I wrote this after a nice cup of tea.:)

    S:I owe my love for tea in no small measure to those supplies of second flush from you and our tea sessions!
    Ah really I am in great company then!! Proud you approve captain!

  8. I thought proselytizing is prohibited.. er... perhaps not in Karnataka? Wonder if I should start a petition drive for passing anti-[beverage] conversion law. With more apostates like you, we are facing sky-rocketing coffee prices :)

  9. Hip Grandma Says:

    I have an adjustment with both coffee and tea.Coffee was the only drink i used to have before marriage and it used to be an early morning affair -fresh decoction and milk straight from the buffalo's udder.memories of my mami preparing coffee bring tears to my eyes even now.After marriage it was coffee in the morning and tea in the afternoon/evenings.when I visit relatives I don't insist on tea unless given an option but do long for my cup of evening tea and somehow coffee doesn't satisfy my taste buds.poet Vairamuthu is right when he says-"You, who do not grasp the essence of tea
    how will you understand
    my poem
    that waits last in your line
    palm against its cheek?

    You've done a good job of the translation and forgive my monologue.

  10. Cee Kay Says:

    Usha, I love tea as much as you do too. But I disagree with you in one thing you said - "... It is difficult to spoil a cup of tea unlike coffee...". You probably haven't had the misfortune to drink tea that has been "killed" by its maker's enthusiasm to turn it into a culinary masterpiece.

    I am so particular about my cup of tea that I don't drink it ANYWHERE except at home. Or I carry all the stuff with me (except maybe milk) and make it to my liking whenever I want it. I simply hate the tea that many Indians make - with lots of milk, boiled with the leaves for hours to turn it into a thick, syrupy poison. My 1-2-3 formula for tea? 1 spoon tea, 2 spoons sugar, 3 spoons milk in a cup of hot water. And yes, I do measure the milk in spoonfuls! I never boil the water with tea leaves in it. People at my office often laugh at me when they see me making tea. But that's the way it is!

  11. I love tea too.. coffee has become a bigger hit with all the baristas and CCDs.. but i still stay loyal to tea...

  12. A kindred soul?

    while in India, I didnt like the bitetr medicine taste of coffee - so it was tea for me.

    But in the US, Tea/Coffee - both are equally "watered" down versions of Indian T/C - So u get put off and nowadays, I prefer hot water to T/C here!


  13. Anonymous Says:

    Vairamuthu's poem was really a good poem.liked reading it.

    And ya that was Spanish.its really a intresting language to learn.. :)

  14. Great stuff. Kanndasan sonna mathiri "Oru (tea) Koopayile ungal Kudiyiruppu?".

    And it seems you kind of Zen meditate when you drink your Chai.

    We live in the coffee capital of NZ and get all varieties of coffee.

    My wife pretty much enjoys coffee the way you do with tea. Filtered (Mysore Indian cofee) brewed in Italian filter or our very own Indian filter, milk boiled and added.

    Add to this the quiet of wellington and especially the quieter weekends and we can sip glimpses of divinity in those beautiful moments.

  15. WhatsInAName Says:

    "you must lose yourself and transcend the present
    in a momentary death
    and rise to the region between
    the sky and earth and wander among clouds"

    Was this the out-of-body experience you mentioned in your other post ? :)
    Well, I am a coffee addict! Can drink gallons of it! I think I will write an ode to coffee now :)

  16. Bit Hawk Says:

    I am a huge coffee fan (though I dont drink it very regularly) I have tried tea many times, but somehow I dont like its smell. I have heard tea fanatics tell me that I have not tried "good tea", so I have tried in places they have suggested too. Somehow I was never able to love it. Dont know, may be I am wired that way. But, one thing that always amazes me is that no coffee lover can love coffee so intensely as a tea lover would love his tea!

  17. Usha Says:

    The Rf: Don't you think that such a law would be unnecessary considering how much filter coffee is embedded in our culture? And I guess that is precisely what makes my crime that much severe but I hope I have pleaded my case quite convincingly with Vairamuthu to back me up.

    Hipgran:It is tough to get a good cup of chai in a chennai house. they assume you'd take coffee, right? I will send you the poem in original.

    Gettingtherenow: About spoiling tea, I know it now but did not know it then. Yes what I got in Delhi was that thick sweet tea with cardomom flavor. It was much later that I discovered brewing tea leaves in a pot and enjoy the flavor rather than its strength mostly without milk or just a hint of milk etc..
    Oh yes, every time I make tea there is much mirth in my house too, cousins exchanging meaningful glances and politely declining my brew. The philistines!

    The mm:I think coffee has also become popular with the coffee machines installed in most offices and yes the baristas and CCDs. Is it also an American thing?

    Karthik:I noticed that Starbucks does serve an approximation of our strong coffee and in a huge cup!And my sister claims that Seattle's best gives her a good brew in her filter.

    Anon:I loved it so much I had to share it.

    Bala:aamaam...I didn't remember that song.
    Sip glimpses of divinity huh, wow!

    WIN:yes, a bit like that.mmm interesting now that you mention it!

    Bithawk:I agree, you cannot make someone like tea. it is something from within - you are a tea person or you are not.
    I suppose coffee lovers treat coffee as a beverage but tea lovers think of it as a philosophy!

  18. Gauri Says:

    Some more to the tea talk - Starbucks has gone ahead and now has a copyright on - I forget what fancy name they use - but guess what it is - our good ole Elaichi wala Chai !!
    It is on each and every Starbucks outlet in HK and seems to be quite the "in" thing right now.

  19. Wow, Ooosha!! Was trying to find what Lin Yu Tang said on tea drinking, but no find. But found this - what I had written long ago - after 15 years, I still remember the taste of that tea -

    "....And there is something about drinking bi-two tea in tall glass glasses sitting on a wooden bench next to the samovar in a thatched-roof tea shop near the university, and watching the sea roll blue in the distance and thinking quiet friendly without saying a thing, because in the end the huge wave of Real Life shall come and sweep away the illusions of our youth mercilessly and we shall resurrect out of it bruised and wiser and tamed, but now, right now, we are here on this old bench and we have faith that what we feel now will last forever, and the shared tea is the seal of our belief, like blood drawn and mingled in a promise, and therefore it is sacred, the very drink of the gods, and nothing, nothing shall ever taste like this again....."


  20. Blogeswari Says:

    Join the gang, Usha. I thought I was the only Soueeeth Indian (as Mumbaikars call me) who doesn't drink

    "... It is difficult to spoil a cup of tea unlike coffee...".
    Usha: Haven't you tried the di-dip tea? aargh! Hate it.

    Loved Vairamuthu's Alukoru Koppai's aangila version. Do you have the tamizh version?

    Cheers ! ( to the Association of tea drinking South Indians)

  21. Bijesh Says:

    amen! I can drink coffee but almost a last resort or when I am with some1 in one of these coffee outlets. :-/ I hate the tea that they make there.
    I live on tea-bags though. Don't have the time to brew the tea the propah way. It's dip, dip, dip for a cup of earl grey now.

    been to infinitea? tea heaven if you are willing to experiment.

  22. Usha Says:

    Gauri: Yes tried it the cardomom chai at Satrbucks. Forget the name. Not bad at all. But even the regular cup is too large.

    Asha: Thank you - the very drink of Gods indeed.
    have your chai and be merry
    for tomorrow we may die!

    Blogeshwari: Once I got initiated into tea and drank some fine teas i realised how invariably everyone spoils tea. But I didn't know it then and it was this friend who said this - her attitude was
    bad tea is still a drink
    bad coffee is poison.

    Transliterated Tamil poem posted below.

    Biju:I can drink coffee too out of politeness like when i visit someone who insists on giving me coffee but my preference is for tea at all times.
    Yes, been to infinitea many times and love it.

  23. good one!! translated an episode o a nice story. i luv your story telling style

  24. that was soo... sooo.. SO! How he must love tea, to be able to write about it like that!

    Well, I am one of those dull people, passionate about neither tea nor coffee, but willing to adjust...:-)
    My Mom is passionate about coffee, so I drank coffee till I got married.
    My husband is passionate about tea, so I drink tea now. (also because i am too lazy to prepare tea for him and coffee for me!)

  25. And that reminds me- I shall ask my husband to read this- without liking tea too much, the words went to my head, he should be able to appreciate it even better than me, for he loves the brew madly too...

    Now if Vairamuthu were to write on dogs, it would be another matter entirely...

  26. me too me too - loves tea :)
    And tho I luvvvvvv filter coffee.... what passes off as coffee in the Western hemisphere - is fit to be puked at - honestly....

  27. I agree with everything you have written. I am a tea drinker and my husband loves filter coffee. When I got married and went to live with my in-laws, it was the same as how your relatives react :)

  28. Chitra Says:

    Loved the post! Beautifully written, Usha as always!

  29. Asha Says:

    Aha, got it!

    "…..For tea is invented for quiet company as wine is invented for a noisy party [I disagree with the second half!]. There is something in the nature of tea that leads us into a world of quiet contemplation of life. It would be as disastrous to drink tea with babies crying around, or with loud-voiced women or politics-talking men, as to pick tea on a rainy or cloudy day.

    Picked at early dawn on a clear day, when the morning air on the mountain top was clear and thin, and the fragrance of dew was still upon the leaves, tea is still associated with the fragrance and refinement of the magic dew in its enjoyment. With the Taoist insistence upon return to nature, and with its conception that the universe is kept alive by the interplay of the male and female forces, the dew actually stands for the “juice of heaven and earth”, when the two principles are united at night, and the idea is current that the dew is a magic food, fine and clear and ethereal, and any man or beast who drinks enough of it stands a good chance of being immortal.

    De Quincey says quite correctly that tea “will always be the favourite beverage of the intellectual," but the Chinese seem to go further and associate it with the highminded recluse.

    …The company, too, must be small. For, “it is important in drinking tea that the guests be few. Many guests would make it noisy, and noisiness takes away from its cultured charm. To drink alone is called secluded; to drink between two is called comfortable; to drink with three or four is called charming; to drink with five or six is called common; and to drink with seven or eight is called (contemptuously) philanthropic."

    'The Importance of Living'
    Lin Yutang


  30. Artnavy Says:

    U must visit Cup and saucer in adyar when u come over to chennai next

    have u tried it with anise as kashmiri's do?

  31. Usha Says:

    ITW:Thanks. Coming from a good story teller, that is a nicecompliment to have.

    JLT:Too lazy for yoour personal cupful of heaven??!! (shaking head in disapproval..)
    And did your husband agree?


    Collection of Stars: Oh yes coffee is a great source for bonding particularly in TN and Karnataka

    Chitra:Taking a bow...

    asha:Merci Bcp. love it. Just captures it all so well.will ruminate over acup of good cha

  32. Usha Says:

    art:will do. Adyar is very close to where I stay in chennai when I am there.
    I have drunk Kahwa - that is the saffron tea that kashmiris make. dont know about anais.

  33. Anonymous Says:

    wah wah ... that was a masterpiece. you said eveything i experience with tea, but cudnt write. i am taking home the lines from the poem :

    "You, who do not grasp the essence of tea
    how will you understand
    my poem
    that waits last in your line
    palm against its cheek? "

    i was given this link by a friend who has commented here & has written on Kaapi on her blog and elsewhere. ;-) being a tea drinker, i have even formed a conspiracy theory that says "coffe outlets serve poor tea, with an intention of converting tea drinkers" .. do read my take here ..

    great writeup


  34. Anonymous Says:

    I love tea!

    we are supposed to be coffee-people also!
    but then.. we love tea too much!