• maria anne fitzgerald

The Hodgepodge Series: Kāppi

Growing up in a cross-cultural home has its share of ‘extra’- ordinariness in daily mundane routines. In this post I retrospect on how an instance of drinking coffee at home, prompted a few thoughts of my own cultural identity.

In Malayalam, the word kāppi, translates to ‘coffee’, the well-known and much loved beverage usually served warm. The brew is harnessed from the powder of roasted coffee beans and water, sometimes served with a dash of milk and sugar. A few days ago, I was serving kāppi at home instead of the evening chai (tea). I opened the kitchen drawer to take out five mugs. To my dismay, I found only four. I urgently tried to locate a fifth ‘something’ to pour kāppi into, before the boiling milk overspilled on the stove. After nosily upturning the bartans (cooking pans) in the kitchen, a kāppi set, under a small bartan (cooking pan) tucked deep inside one of the drawers caught my attention.

For those of you not familiar with a kāppi set – it’s a small south Indian metal cup accompanied with a proportionate dish as a saucer. The cup and dish set allows for the kāppi to be poured between them during the process of being ‘pulled’, i.e. poured back and forth between two containers, for the purpose of cooling. As you may have guessed, the kāppi set, which I came upon had not been used for a long time. In fact, it’s presence caught me by surprise. I took it out, rinsed it under the tap and placed it on the kitchen counter top. And so it was – four coffee mugs and one kāppi set.

As I poured the steaming coffee into the coffee mugs, my eyes were fixed on the metallic cup and dish. It stood in striking contrast to the four tall monochromatic, wide coffee mugs. I decided to drink my coffee in this newly discovered household artefact. My soft finger tips trembled as I held the warm metal cup between them. Choosing to sit by the window, I was unsure if I should try ‘pulling’ the coffee to cool it. Perhaps, that would have been too much of a talent showcase. Ma already noticed my awkward hold on the heated kāppi set. I was masking the struggle. In ‘youthful’ lingo, I was trying to play and be cool.

I made myself comfortable by the window. kāppi cup in hand, I placed some biscuits in the kāppi dish and began to sip kāppi like a pro. My mother was watching my antics. Her gaze silently told me I was using the kāppi set peculiarly. Drinking from a kāppi set was not an unfamiliar instance or scene for me. It was during those trips to my maternal hometown, where I had learnt the custom of using a south Indian kāppi set. In retrospect, I would like to acknowledge my cultural mix for my present antics. I could not help but reflect on the merging of my Anglo and South selves that were showcased in this mere act of drinking coffee. I want to unpack this thought a little more.

Kāppi is a universal beverage, with multiple flavour intensities and styles of drinking. A Starbucks or a Coffee Café Day in the metropolitan city, with its probable americano, cappuccino, mocha, espresso, café au lait, or macchiato may have introduced most of us to its flavours. However, it cannot replace or pull a cover over the local styles of drinking coffee. More so in village towns akin to my birthplace in South India – the heartland of the brew in this country. The varying adaptions to kāppi undoubtedly draw from the cultural preferences of place and region. In as much as most of us unconsciously acknowledge this in theory, it is something else when one’s ambiguous cultural influence consciously acknowledges it in practice. At times, this places the individual in a tight spot, causing them to reflect on a taken-for-granted everyday action. In this case – How do I drink my coffee?

Firstly, in an Anglo-Indian home, a cup and a saucer is not an unusual sight. Through juvenile observation and imitation skills, I had mastered the skill of holding and using one to drink kāppi. On visits to my maternal hometown, this porcelain cup and saucer was replaced by the metal kāppi set. I was shown how to use it to ‘cool’ the brew and willingly followed the instructions. My kāppi container has since evolved with place and region. Its only recently I took note of it. The container did not matter then, and certainly not in the way it did now. Today, it is one of the recently uncovered aspects which make me reflect on my cross-cultural identity.

Secondly, the act of placing biscuits in the kāppi set dish. Probably this idea came to me since the kāppi dish resembled a small bowl and my anglicized habit of placing biscuits in the saucer prompted the thought. However, in traditional south Indian custom, as explained earlier, the dish plays a role in cooling the brew as it is ‘pulled’. Ma probably tried to convey this to me by using a combination of her understanding of my ambiguous practices and subtle glare. I was too wrapped up in my bubble of ambivalence to correct myself. I would have probably won a few giggles for my coffee-time escapades had I been in my mother’s hometown.

Thirdly, the performance of drinking kāppi. If you recall from the earlier paragraphs, I had chosen to use the kāppi set but opted to not ‘pull’ my kāppi, admitting it would have been ‘too much of a talent showcase’. Would this thought emerge had I been in my maternal hometown? Or, would I have even thought of it as a ‘talent showcase’ there? NO. I would have just ‘played it cool’ because it’s customary to drink it in that particular style. I guess transferring, adapting, accommodating practices and placing them in new contexts is challenging. Perhaps, the questions posed here may extend beyond this interpretation and can be applied in several contexts of people who have grown up in cross-cultural families - reflecting particularly in their dressing styles and eating habits.

Fourthly, choosing to drink my coffee in a kāppi set. It was not a deliberate act. I had not even anticipated that this action would evoke such thoughts in my mind, particularly about my cultural identity and its practice. It sort of revealed to me that my home was already embedded with a certain set of practices that were routinely followed. Further, these practices never allowed for the inclusion of different cultures simultaneously, but preferred to pay heed to them singularly. Hence, while my home space allows for transitions between both my parental cultures, it does not allow them to be practiced simultaneously. I guess I’ll be negotiating these boundaries for a lifetime within and beyond the threshold of my home. *smiles*

Is all this too much to think about over a cup of kāppi? *laughs*

After I finished my cup of kāppi, I promptly stood up and smiled down at my empty, and now cooled kāppi set. I held it tight without any tremble. It was no longer a newly discovered household artefact but a silent reminder of my pseudo-self. Later, I also felt content with the fact that I found an article of my maternal home 2331 kilometres away from it – a probable nuance of a cross-cultural home. On close reading, I can discern that there is thought in every action we perform irrespective of our awareness which not only speak ‘through’ but ‘to’ our preferences, situations, and choices. While it is undoubtedly easier to look outwards and assess these on the outside, it takes courage to brew the practice of looking inwards at ourselves and composition.

I am keen to hear from you – how do you drink your kāppi?

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