My first encounter with coffee left such a bitter taste that I silently swore I would never have it again. I must have been about eight or nine, and it was one of those rare occasions when we were left at home unsupervised.
It wasn’t that I had any particular curiosity or desire to taste the drink that was part of my mother’s morning ritual. It was a result of two things—one being that we were not permitted to have coffee, and the other, that being unsupervised meant trying out something you were not allowed to do. Just because you could.
It was not even planned. I had climbed up on the kitchen counter and opened the overhead cupboard and was looking at the contents, which were normally out of reach.
There was the bottle of instant coffee, suddenly attractive because it was taboo.
I clambered down with it in my inquisitive hands and emptied a heaping tablespoon into a cup, then I poured some water from the tap into it and stirred in some condensed milk as I had seen my mother do.
It never occurred to me that any heat should be involved, or that the granules should be dissolved. I don’t recall if I sipped or gulped, but I remember retching and puking quietly in the kitchen. Unfortunately, I had always been quick to nausea, and the memory remained a gigantic coffee stain on my brain until adulthood—like the smell of milk and carrots.
It went away when I started working at the Express, first, as what was called a cub reporter, and then when the afternoon paper, the Sun, was established (to compete with the Evening News). I was transferred to that desk, which meant picking up work very early in the morning—too early for my brain, frankly.
By about ten or eleven, I would slip out and head across Independence Square to Johnny’s Restaurant and have a hot cup of extremely sweet instant coffee, mixed by the proprietor, who would join me as we sipped and smoked.
It had always been instant coffee with condensed milk until later, when I was introduced to the brewed version. Ground beans, medium roasted, made by Hong Wing, a local company in the business since 1921.
No fancy equipment was involved: the beans were steeped in boiled water for a few minutes then strained into cups with a teaspoon of sugar. No milk. To wake up to that aroma brought a whole new meaning to mornings.
Coming from a history of instant coffee, it seemed absolutely decadent to my mind, although in hindsight, I realise this was common fare for the working class. What had elevated it in my consciousness was the ritual that attended it every single morning.
My partner took pride in his brew, and we would sip the coffee from cups that were so exquisitely perfect that they still stand out in my memory. At first, I thought his attachment to those cups was an affectation, but I came to understand it as my own appreciation grew.
The affinity with the cup came from its shape, its weight, the way it felt in your hands, the colour and texture—a supremely tactile experience topped by the rich aroma steaming into your nostrils. When our coffee mornings ended, I went searching for cups to make my own.
I found a set of coffee and tea cups at What’s Cooking, which I believe no longer exists. I was, I think, unreasonably attached to them. The last of the coffee cups broke about five years ago, and although the tea cups still exist, they do not feel right for coffee.
Since then I have been on a quest to find cups that might evoke the same sensations. I’ve come close once or twice, but never really managed to recapture the feel of those cups. This morning, as I was writing about it, I looked at the teacups and saw that they were from a noted Mexican store called Palomar and were created by a potter named Ken Edwards.
Searching further, I found that the set I had been introduced to was also made by Edwards, and they were expensive. Sadly, there were none of my original coffee cups. It brought back many memories.
Was it the coffee or the cups? Were they inseparable?
I have tried all kinds of coffee from everywhere I can. I stopped having sugar in my coffee years ago, and now I just add a little milk, which I prefer.
My sister, who travelled a great deal (until pandemic lockdowns), knew that the one thing I wanted would be coffee from whichever place she visited. I’ve discovered many different flavours—the most unusual was one I had in Mumbai—but all have been delightful experiences.
Though I still relish Hong Wing, I suppose I was triggered to write this because of the new bag she brought me two days ago. The smell alone made me dizzy with anticipation.
This morning, Bob Marley’s One Cup of Coffee from 1962 was playing in my brain before my eyes were even open. The day before I had felt overwhelmed by the apocalyptic nature of the global news.
It didn’t seem I could find a way to shake it off. But there it was, this simple pleasure, just a cup and a sip away.