I am a frequent visitor to the multiple coffee shops in Mumbai. During these visits I have developed a special affection for the filter coffee joints at Matunga, and a growing admiration for the multiple homegrown and international brands setting shop in the city. But for me, and many more like me, coffee had humble beginnings. Sometime it was the whisked, often cardamom-flavored home made Nescafe, or the shake-shake-shake blue plastic shaker mixed cold coffee, or the tongue-tingling espresso served at weddings. But none of the experiences have left a deeper impression on my memory than the turban-clad waiters of the Indian Coffee House. And more than the Coffee, this note is about the institution which will always remind me of the word Coffee.
Indian Coffee House or ICH are restaurants run by a set of co-operative societies across the country with strong presence across Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and some other cities including Bangalore, Kolkata and Shimla. They have their origins in the Coffee Board of India, and were the first proponents of the coffee-promotion movement some 60 odd years back. Apart from the Coffee they serve, their menu also includes breakfast snacks, primarily South Indian, eggs made in different styles, cutlets, their unique version of Chana-bhaturas, with some branches even serving the full meal. They also have a catering business spawning majorly Public Sector Enterprises.
As a child growing up in a small Chhattisgarh township in Korba, ICH was the epitome of having a good time. In those days when eating out was a rarity and swallowing fizzy drinks a luxury, ICH was a break from the routine, one of the only ways of us spending some money on pampering ourselves. It was a destination for family dinners and get-togethers, for some memorable birthday treats, and the best place for watching the annual ritual of township Dusshera celebration (it was mighty difficult to get a good spot, but a Gold Spot did come to rescue).
Drawing from the words of my childhood friend, there was and always will be a certain charm about ICH. I might expect some of the younger kids to go in and find the place a bit morose by coffee shop standards, but then perceptions of all things which I fancied as a kid has changed.
At ICH the dishes were served on thick china plates, something we were not used to at home. The waiters moved around in a quick orderly fashion, with the right hand carrying the serving tray, exactly raised to shoulder length. Their walking was accompanied with a clinging sound of shiny Salem steel cutlery hitting the china. We also learned our first lessons of slightly alien-table manners (using cutlery- knife and fork, wiping hands using tissues), although I personally never got a hang of it. I am still not comfortable eating that way. The glasses reminded me of a curved conical frustum, something which we did come to haunt us during our Xth board Mathematics examination.
The interiors were mostly dull with the only striking colors noticed on the ribbon stripes of turbans wore by waiters. I could never figure out the color coding though, it was green for some, and maroon for others, with a rare occurrence of navy blue. The smell of Sambhar dominated the air, pleasantly interrupted by the fragrant whiff of Khus from the Water Cooler and the scent of freshly brewed Filter Coffee from the kitchen. Add to that the wonderful sound of forks and spoons hitting the cutlery while eating and ICH ruled all our senses.
But the sense of taste was never undermined. All variants of Dosa were served fresh and crisp, and yes you could always ask the waiter uncle to make it extra crispy. The Chutney was more daal than coconut kinds, and the sambhar had a majority share of pumpkins and drumsticks. The Wadas were crisp, Idilis soft, Omelets as trustworthy as ever, French Toasts unique, and Cutlets delightful with those chunky pieces of beetroot and carrot. Rs. 14 could buy you a Masala Dosa, Rs. 16 a Special Masala Dosa (with two pieces of cashew nuts in the masala to make it special), Rs. 12 a plate of Idli, and Rs. 6 a filter coffee (this must be the rates in the mid 90s I guess). And yes the Coffee was a delight. I was introduced to the magic of Filter Coffee here, for which I would be forever indebted to ICH.
I have faint memories of dessert too, they kept Dinshaw’s Ice Cream (a Nagpur based brand prevalent in Central India), a kitchen-made Vanilla Ice-Cream (frozen custard, topped with Fruits). The Lassi Ice-Cream combo was good too.
And when the meal ended, the bill was always brought to you neatly tucked in a pile of saunf. Tips if any were all stuffed in a common piggy bank kept on the manager’s desk.
Over the years I have got a chance to visit Indian Coffee House across various cities. Delhi’s ICH is at Connaught Place is now a poor cousin of the much popular United Coffee House (not related to the society) and is not in a good shape, and Shimla’s ICH is a place dominated by Lawyers and Government Officers at the Mall which does give it a very true to the ICH feel (there is a new one at Kasumpti now, very dull though). ICH’s across Kerala are the busiest, with people from all age groups coming in for a Coffee and a Cutlet (Beef Cutlets were visibly selling more), and the Bangalore one has been relocated to a neat and new location on Church Street from MG Road post the Metro construction. But it is MP and Chhattisgarh which have kept the institution running outside Kerala in a well spread out and popular manner. I do want to visit the ICHs across Kolkata though, have heard they still retain the old world ICH Charm.
I am scared that like all things good, ICH will cease to exist in a few years from now. So what is the place of an age-old institution with socialist roots in the new India with chic cafes and upmarket restaurants?
Their place is sealed in my memories, forever.
With inputs from Amey.