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What Arabs said about coffee: 1st cup is hospitality, 2nd enjoyment, and 3rd for the sword

In 'Cherry Red, Cherry Black', Kavery Nambisan tells the story of how coffee arrived in India from the Middle East,

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This beverage, which many like me consider essential to getting out of bed in the morning, is not native to India. Where did coffee originate, and how did it travel the globe? The plants grew wild in the region of Caffea in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). It is said that a goatherd watched his goats become frisky after chewing on clusters of red berries from a bush. He chewed on a few berries himself and spat them out; they were so bitter. But within minutes, he felt all tiredness vanish, and although it was late in the day, felt fit enough to fell logs for the fireplace at home. His wife was so impressed! He lost no time in spreading the news around the village. Soon, coffee bushes were being grown along the lower slopes of the hills in the area.

In the mid-fifteenth century, an Arab sheikh visiting Abyssinia took some seeds back to his home in Yemen. Coffee then became a favourite of the Arabs, although their religious leaders denounced it as the ‘devil’s drink’, Devil be damned, the concoction was a great find. Over the years, it became venerated all over Arabia, specially prepared, only by men. Here are the steps involved in brewing a cup: “Take two handfuls of dried coffee beans of the best quality and roast them in a pan until the aroma fills the air. Grind it into a slightly coarse powder and add it to a vessel containing two quarts of water that has just been brought to a boil. The boiling will stop. Heat till it begins to boil once more and remove it from the fire. Repeat this until it has boiled three times. The resulting decoction makes eight cups of perfect coffee. Pour into cups preheated with hot coffee. Only half a cupful is served at a time. If the cup is full or less than half-full, it is an insult. Two cups of coffee should be served to one’s friends. A third cup is for the enemy. The saying goes: ‘The first cup is hospitality, the second is enjoyment, the third is for the sword.”

In the early decades of the seventeenth century, there lived a farmer named Hazarat Shah Magatabi in the small village of Kadur (now Chikmagalur) in the kingdom of Mysore in southern India. He was better known as Baba Badah-ud-in or Baba Budan. A devout Muslim, he set out on a voyage across the Arabian Sea to Mecca. The steamer he was on was a small one, and the voyage perilous. When the weather turned stormy and there was a real danger of the ship being dashed to pieces against some rocky cliff, the captain got half a dozen of his passengers to take turns staying awake at night and keeping watch. A dark and bitter concoction made from roasted and ground seeds, sweetened with date syrup, was offered to them every night before the watch. ‘Drink this,’ the captain said. ‘It will kick open your eyes and your senses and keep the ears sharp in the dark, besides toning the muscles slackened by immobility. It will overcome sleep and make your blood run faster, even in the thick of night.’ The brew worked its spell; the pilgrims safely made their voyage to Mecca.

Hazarat Shah was so taken by the magic drink that on his way back he managed to smuggle a handful of coffee seeds through the port of Yemen by tucking them into an inside pocket of his upper garment.


Also read: 1970s India was all about ‘coffee pe charcha’. And it began at Delhi’s Indian Coffee House


He survived the voyage back to his homeland with a mere seven seeds in his cache. These he planted behind his house. Three of the seeds produced saplings and grew into bushes with thick green leaves. He nurtured the plants like children, jealously guarding them against insects and bugs. Some three years later, after a night of rain, he woke early in the morning to a strange fragrance wafting in from the yard, and was astonished at the sight of his bushes adorned in starry white blooms.

Months went by, and clusters of green berries appeared on the branches; in the warmer months, they ripened to a bright and glistening red. These he plucked and dried in his backyard until they turned black. They were then roasted, powdered and boiled into a concoction. Hazarat Shah Magatabi had triumphed in brewing the first cup of coffee in the Indian subcontinent from the berries grown in his backyard.

The bitter decoction of coffee seeds became popular enough for other farmers to plant saplings along the slopes of the Chandragiri Hills which skirt Chikmagalur—a terrain too steep for the cultivation of their staple crop, which was rice. Coffee plants did not need much maintenance and they grew well in the moist, warm tropical clime, many of them reaching a height of 20 feet. This rugged variety of coffee later became known as ‘Robusta’. The growers plucked and dried the berries, kept some for personal consumption and sold the rest to Arab merchants, getting either salt or gold in exchange. The Arabs, in turn, traded it further north as they were not growing enough coffee to meet the increasing demand from Europe, where it had gained popularity.

In England, a Greek by the name of Pasqua Rosée started the first coffee house on St Michael’s Alley in Cornhill and distributed handbills to advertise its virtues: “The berry called Coffee growth upon little trees in Arabia…it is a simple innocent thing made into a drink after it is dried in an oven, ground into powder and boiled in spring water. About half a pint is to be drunk an hour before food . . . to be taken as hot as possibly can be endured which will not fetch the skin off the mouth or raise blisters…It so encloseth the orifice of the stomach and fortifieth the heart within, that it is very good to aid digestion and therefore of great use if taken at three or four o’clock in the afternoon as well as in the morning. It much quietens the spirit and makes the heart lightsome. It suppresseth fumes exceedingly and therefore is good against headache and will stop any deflection of rheums that distil from the head upon the stomach, and so prevent consumption and cough. It can cure gout, dropsy, scurvy and is excellent remedy against the spleen, hypochondriac
winds and the like. It will prevent drowsiness and make one fit for business. Therefore you must not drink it after supper unless you have cause to be watchful…It is neither a laxative nor an astringent. In Turkey where it is generally drunk, they are not troubled with the stone, dropsy, scurvy or gout. Their skin is exceedingly clean and bright.”

This excerpt from Cherry Red, Cherry Black by Kavery Nambisan has been published with permission from Bloomsbury.

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