Tea or Coffee?

If you had asked me when I was seven, I would have said coffee because coffee is the drink of the go-getter. My father drank black coffee every morning, a single cup brewed from a coffee maker that he methodically placed a filter into every morning along with a scoop of grounds. It would rumble as the water was startled with the sudden onset of heat, and relinquish its product in gurgling spatters of deep brown. It smelled rich and complex.

My parents never really offered me coffee as a child, and so I assumed that it was a very grown-up thing to drink. My mother actually didn’t drink tea all that much either when I was younger. Caffeine never really suited her.

I had my first taste of the mysterious, powerful concoction during a playdate with my childhood best friend, Sachi. Her babysitter took us to a Starbucks after a trip to the park, and after we confidently demanded a mocha — the most sophisticated drink we could think of — she sighed and ordered one. Looking back, I presume she ordered us a decaf. I hope she did.

When the hot beverage was handed to us, we were giddy, unsure of how we’d pulled off the ultimate rebellious act. We took turns taking a sip. I still remember watching Sachi’s lips purse as she struggled to conceal how much she hated the bitterness of the mocha. I remember thinking, “she’s still a kid, of course she doesn’t like it” because I was an entire year older than her. That first sip I took shattered all my perceptions of what was sweet and good about being an adult. Coffee sucks. We told the babysitter we were full and tossed the cup in the trash. The babysitter looked at the bin in horror as the drink she’d just blown four dollars on escaped the possibility of ever being fully consumed.

When I moved to India at the age of ten, going to Starbucks turned into more of a fantasy. There were no Starbucks’ in India at the time, so whenever we would travel, I’d marvel at the white mermaid smiling at me from the deep green neon.

A lot of my other friends that had moved to India from the states raved about their favourite frappuccinos from Starbucks, and I so desired to get on their level. My dad used to order either a soy hazelnut latte, espresso, or black coffee, and I would play it safe with a hot chocolate or a muffin.

“The cookies are so big!” One peer of mine used to say.

And so I’d order the large cookie, just so I could say “I know!”

On one trip back to the states, I decided to try coffee one more time, this time in a form that sounded more palatable. I looked at the menu long and hard and fixed my eyes on what I now know is one of the most sugary drinks on the Starbucks menu. I walked up to the barista. “One tall soy white chocolate mocha please, no whipped cream.” At this point, I knew I was lactose intolerant, but did not know how much of my mother’s caffeine issues I’d inherited. The next time I had a chance to order, I altered my request slightly: “One tall soy decaf white chocolate mocha please, no whipped cream.”

That sweet sweet excuse for coffee became my standard Starbucks order for years to come, all the way through to when Starbucks began opening stores around India in 2012. On a family trip to Mumbai, Sachi and I walked into the first Starbucks in India, located in Mumbai. It almost felt like a pilgrimage. We didn’t order mochas. Soon they were opening up around Delhi, and my dad drove us all the way to Connaught Place, the first branch, and then the ones that opened closer to our home. With the gradual increment in Starbucks visits, I started trying other decaf soy drinks, some with cranberry sauce during Christmas time, and some with experimental flavor profiles more specific to India.

Late high school, I discovered something awful. Not all coffee establishments made the sugary decaf soy drinks that I had come to love. I had walked into a different coffee shop and ordered what I thought would be a delicious soy latte. Alas, the bitter taste of that mocha crawled from my childhood to my teenage years. It still sucked. It forced me to ask myself a rather intriguing question: do I really like coffee?

Cue entry: tea. But first, we need to backtrack a little.

I travelled to India a lot as a child, and we had a lot of family from India come and visit us at home. I think you know what I’m getting at here: there was a lot of chai consumption.

Chai, in Hindi, means tea. When you ask for chai, however, what is served to you is a rich black tea with milk and sugar. Someone once told me that the tradition of chai came to India with the British. The British, got it from the Chinese. The Chinese were the ones that started the whole trend. The way we drink it though, it’s hard to believe that there was a time when people in India didn’t drink tea.

We drink tea like it’s a necessity. I know so many people that drink a minimum of two cups a day, lightly topping of their caffeine quota for a few hours. I have also known people who went on low carb diets, but continued to heap sugar into their tea because that was the one thing they could not compromise on.

Indians are very proud of their hospitality, and never fail to ask their company for their beverage of choice. A round of water is pretty typical, but chai is by far the most common request. Every household knows which brand they like best, whether they’ll mix in the sugar for you or let you stir it in yourself. The milk is often an assumed addition, and snacks are an expected offering.

I loved chai as a kid, and drank so much of it, it kept me up for hours. I was better at handling its caffeine levels than my mother, and later discovered that the level in black coffee is my upper boundary on the caffeine tolerance scale.

My late grandfather taught me a way to drink chai that would keep it from burning my tongue. He said in villages in India, people poured tea into the saucer and sipped it up from there. It cooled to the right temperature almost instantly, and although it was a little impolite, it was effective. Whenever we drank chai together, I would drink it in this way, as if to assure him I had been paying attention.

When I was eight, I was declared lactose intolerant, and the glorious, sweet chai was taken away from me. My cousins in India also had me hooked on something called “cold coffee” which was an impossibly sugary, milky coffee that was a delight to my tongue but a nightmare on my stomach. While I could steal sips every now and then without having to run to the bathroom, it never seemed worth it — and cold coffee without milk simply wasn’t cold coffee anymore.

I remember feeling less involved in family gatherings, having to explain why on earth I’d turn down a fragrant cup of chai. I had to start putting soy milk or non-dairy creamers into my chai if I wanted to be a part of the group. It just wasn’t the same.

The only other tea I’d had, at this point, was at a tea party birthday party that one of my friends had. I remember it was at a tea room, and each of us were seated at small tables full of snacks on colourful plastic platters. We each had a tea-cup, and at the centre of the table was a teapot that only the adults were allowed to pick up and pour for us. There was also a box of sugar cubes on each table. I must’ve eaten seven sugar cubes straight from it. I couldn’t help it, I just loved the way they felt in my mouth, both while in cube form and while crushed into a million sparkling, crystals. The tea itself was alright. I remember it was hot, a little lemony, and sweeter than the cubes themselves. How that was possible, I’m not sure, but I had two cups of it with some small sandwiches.

Years later, after the move to India, my mom’s fairly moderate love for green tea blossomed into a full-blown passion for herbal teas. I think it began at a Teavana on one of our trips back to the states. She smelled tea leaves unlike anything she’d smelled before and saw the glass teapot of her dreams and just, well, never turned back.

When we came back to India, we heard news that someone in our neighbourhood had started a tearoom nearby. We went to visit and ordered a mushroom and spinach quiche with a pot of something called silver tip tea. It tasted like hot water, but a little fancier. I definitely wouldn’t have called it a flavor explosion; it was delicate and subtle. My mom fell in love with the tea and took home a few packs. We went back a few times after that, always ordering the quiche and a different kind of tea. I really liked that quiche.

That tea room, which I think was called Tranquilitea, inspired my mom to seek out tea that unfurled into flowers and coloured hot water red. She found floral teas and mixed them with fruity teas. She found teas that calm you down and teas that boost your immunity. There was tea for everything.

When I was studying for exams and stressed out, I was given chamomile. When I was sneezing and shaking, echinacea was the key. I had green tea with honey when my throat was scratchy, and a pomegranate tea to soothe my stomach after dinner. At some point, I started asking for tea at the cafe at my high school, always without milk or sugar, just the way I drank it at home. A little into my senior year I started bringing tea bags to school, storing them in my locker, ready-to-go when I needed it.

Tea never made me jittery the way coffee and sugar did. I could drink as much as I wanted, and feel hydrated at the same time. The more I drank, the less I needed sugar and honey to bring out a desired taste. The aroma of tea became enough for me to enjoy its flavour.

In college, everyone drank coffee, but I was tea girl. I started ordering tea every morning, and holding on to the tags of the ones that I loved the most, hiding them in my phone case and dropping them off in a mug I kept back in my dorm room.

There was also a créperie near our dorm that my roommate and I frequented, which had an enormous collection of what is now my favorite brand of tea, made by the French company Marriage Frères. They were marvellous. Black tea, red tea, green tea, herbal tea, they had it all. I took a picture of their selection and made it a mission to try every single one. By my second year, I had. I gathered all the tea tags I’d collected and brought them in to show the owner, David. He laughed, gave me three free bags as a reward, and never failed to greet me on future visits. David greeted me until the weekend I graduated, and gifted me a sample of every new tea they had in stock. The people that worked there called me “tea girl”, and would always wait expectedly to see which one I’d order.

Needless to say, I had a huge collection of tea in my apartment too, and always had something to offer friends in need. Rose tea was a favourite, as was a particularly fun number called Hot Cinnamon Spice — great for fall. Like my mom, I would mix flavours together and sip a cup before bed. They helped settle my impossible stomach, and calm my overworked mind.

I think I realized how deep-seated my obsession was on a family trip to France. We’d just finished walking through the Louvre, obsessing over the art and fangirling after seeing JLo and ARod making rounds of the world famous museum, but the pictures I have from that day are of something else entirely. When we walked into the mall that sits adjacent to the Louvre my eyes widened in disbelief. A mere 100 meters away I saw the distinctive black and cream logo of Mariage Frères. I always knew that the company was French, but it never occurred to me that they might have a tea room I could visit. My legs shook and I took a full two minutes to figure out how to explain to my mom why my heart was thumping. The man who ran the tea sampling counter and the man who seated people for tea looked at me with utter confusion — I’m sure they’d never seen someone so excited to enter their store. I walked up to the counter and asked to hold the giant canister of my favorite tea from the company, the Rouge Bourbon. I bought a small tin of loose leaves of both the Rouge Bourbon and a new blue tea they had in stock. It was one of the most magical moments we had on that very magical trip, and certainly the weirdest tourist interaction those two kind frenchmen had had in a while.

Pictures from my unexpected pilgrimage to the Mariage Frères store at the Louvre in Paris

Throughout college I drank tea at restaurants, especially with a heavy meal, and I drank tea in class, especially on cold days. Right now, years later, I have three different kinds of tea in my small Thai studio apartment, and a water heater to make drinking it easier.

Side note: Water heaters are maybe my favourite kitchen appliance, just after the microwave.

I think my answer to the tea or coffee question is similar to the plot of a lot of romantic comedies. Coffee was the shiny hot thing that I always wanted, but had to dress up to appreciate. I never really liked it for what it was, I liked it for what it could be when I smothered it in unhealthy accessories. I only liked it one way, and made myself continue on with it because other people liked it too. It just never made sense for me. I didn’t like the way it made my breath smell, and I didn’t like the way my heart raced if I ever got “caff” instead of “decaf”. It was too many calories that I didn’t have the energy to burn off, and too much effort to find a version that I liked.

Tea, on the other hand, was a childhood favourite, that left me after a tragedy and then came back raw, pure, and better than ever. It’s versatile, timeless, easy, and accessible. It’s always been there for me, and it always will be — and even today, I keep finding new ways that I like to drink it.

So tea, without a doubt, is my answer. We’re in a sort of a committed relationship at this point. I don’t feel deprived of coffee anymore, or left out of the huge fanbase that it’s cultivated over centuries. Sure, more people like coffee, but who cares? More tea for me.

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Trying to make sense of the world, one word at a time

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Apeksha Atal

Apeksha Atal

Trying to make sense of the world, one word at a time

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