If you ask me whether I am a tea person or a coffee person, I will hesitate to answer. Mild obsession with both teas and coffees comes over me in interchanging waves, and if this month I may be making coffee every couple of hours and maniacally insisting that you drink it with me, then next month I will switch to polite and refined: ‘Would you care for some tea?’
Moreover, with a travel life like mine, sometimes you simply find yourself in a country where coffee is some unimaginable shite, and you have to either fall as low as drinking instant coffee, or find a substitute for this magical drink.
I am sure that all of us, coffee junkies, have our own stories of how we first slid into the addiction. Mine probably starts somewhere on a genetic level, inherited from my mother, but in fact, one of my first childhood memories was the sound of old Soviet coffee grinding machine that would wake me up for school in the morning as my mum was preparing coffee in the kitchen. I never drank coffee until the age of 17, I think, because then University happened and caffeine became a necessity of my miserable student life. Since then, I declared it as my solemn purpose to travel to every coffee-producing country of the world and find the perfect drink. I am glad to inform you that yes, I did find it, and no, it is nowhere near Italy.
I need to say, that being a booze-free vegetarian, I probably miss out on a lot of gross things people usually try in exotic countries ‘for the sake of experience’. I compensate for it with copious amounts of traditional non-alcoholic drinks, among which coffee and tea are most common. So let me tell you about the weirdest coffees and teas I tried and lived to tell the story.
1) Fish-flavoured tea from Japan
Although I’ve never been to Japan and cannot claim any in-depth knowledge of the exquisite tea culture of this fascinating country, there was one time when a fellow traveller from Japan treated me to a cup of powdered tea with distinctive fish flavour. Inexperienced and impressionable, back then I thought it was the most disgusting thing I would ever try.
2) Tibetan tea
Tibet, as you may know, is the rooftop of the world, the best place on the planet currently being vandalized by the Chinese, and the ultimate Rivendell for lost souls looking for serenity and wilderness of the barren Tibetan plateau dotted with the herds of yaks. Yaks produce milk, milk produces butter. Tibetan tea is essentially salted tea with copious amounts of butter. As I was lying half-dead of altitude sickness in a tent at the Everest Base Camp, the lady of the house told me that this tea would help. She made me drink the entire bowl of it. It was so, so much worse than any fishy tea from Japan. But it, indeed, brought me back to life.
3) Kalmyk tea
Similarly to Tibetans, the Kalmyks of Russia (as well as, apparently, Mongolians and many other nomads of Central Asia) drink tea with salt, milk and spices. Milk varieties can be anything from camel to sheep, and among the most common spices are black pepper and nutmeg. The green tea itself is preserved in compressed bricks. The most traditional and original tea is prepared with sheep fat. As a friend of mine treated me to the drink of her native land, she remarked: «Well, the trick is not to think of it as tea. Think of it as soup. It is all about perception.»
4) Pakistani highland tea
Up in the highlands of Pakistan, along the Karakorum highway, I happened to spend a night in a shepherd hut somewhere by one of the glaciers. The local workers who were sleeping in a tent nearby invited me for a cup of tea, which was, of course, that very tea with salt that all highland people seem to have a liking for. Except here, the black tea leaves are actually boiled in the milk, and salt is added later. There must really be some medicinal value in the tea+milk+salt combination, which helps against altitude sickness and irregular blood pressure.
5) The glorious bubble tea of Asia
«When I moved to Taiwan, I gained a lot of weight in a matter of f*cking weeks!» a friend was complaining to me. The reason for this was, strangely, not that everything in Taiwan was ridiculously delicious and I would slide in a food coma every time I went out for dinner in Taipei or Kaohsiung. The reason for many foreigners gaining weight in Taiwan (as well as Philippines, Singapore, and some other places) was the bubble tea. Charged with a sugar dose that could kill a cookie monster, the main feature of this drink are ‘pearls’, or slimy jelly balls the size of a pearl that fill the bottom of your enormous glass. They are sneaky, they are like little alien eggs that cannot wait to infiltrate your stomach and start multiplying their way to world domination. The bubble tea has different flavors and is sold pretty much on every corner in tall glasses with a wide straw so that the ‘pearls’ could slide into your mouth one by one.
Foreigners happen to love this stuff as much as locals, and it is a more natural alternative to Coke energy-wise (but I mean, basically anything is a more natural alternative to Coke).
6) Turkish tea
I cannot just leave it like this without mentioning the tea of my temporarily adopted country, Turkey. Prepared in a ‘double-decker’ teapot, there is nothing really weird about Turkish tea, it is just purely delicious and great part of social life. It seems that certain people in Istanbul literally spend the entire day sipping tea somewhere by the water and gazing at the human life around them. Tea is solution to all your earthly problems.
1) Vietnamese egg coffee
Can’t be arsed to make both an omelet and a coffee for breakfast? How about them both in one cup? The Southeast Asian egg coffee is prepared by pouring hot black coffee over whipped egg yolk mixed with condensed milk. Needless to mention, it is pure diabetes in a cup, but it is damn delicious and filling.
2) Pilipino kopee
Philippines don’t have decent coffee. With all my love for the country, lack of proper coffee was one of the things that was driving me bonkers every single day. I soon gave up, and politely smiled when in a café they would offer me a variety of instant coffee mixes from different manufacturers, to choose, as if one instant shite was any superior to another.
Actually, Kopiko wins.
3) Kopi Luwak
Immortalised in ’The Bucket List’, this coffee is known to be one the most expensive coffees in the world. The berries of it are eaten by Asian palm civets, fermented in the stomach and shat out but these furry brats, whereupon the farmers dig through the shit and pick up the berries, roast them and sell at around $600 per kilo retail price. You are probably wondering who was that first person who thought: «What if…?»
Apparently, the history of Kopi Luwak goes back to colonial times in Indonesia, when the Dutch plantation owners would strictly prohibit the farmers that slaved out on their land to take any of the beans for personal use. The farmers noticed that civets ate the coffee berries and then defecated them, and started collecting the beans to brew coffee at home. What started as poor man’s coffee then grew into a large-scale business with really good marketing aimed at rich Westerners hungry for exotic Asian shit. To be honest, marketing is all there is. I tried coffee Luwak once, and it tastes like your ordinary coffee with a bit more bitterness, due to fermentation juices. Is it worth the money? Nah. Is it cool to have it on your shelf and brag about it? No doubt.
Consider this also: since coffee luwak farming turned into a large-scale business, it is not that animals are free to roam around and eat coffee whenever they want. Civets on kopi luwak farms are reported to live in miserable conditions and being force-fed the coffee berries like some shit factories. So instead of putting a picture of the coffee here I will let you look at this cute furry beast that we should direct our gratitude to, and boycott the kopi luwak production until animal cruelty is properly dealt with.
To go deeper into the matter, let us look at the absolutely most expensive coffee in the world, the Black Ivory Coffee that comes defecated by elephants and is then being sold at $1000 per kilo. I never tried this particular variety, but it is said that the proteins produced during the fermentation in the elephant stomach give the coffee some bitterness and valuable medical properties. This coffee, in contrast with the unethical kopi luwak farming, is produced by Black Ivory Coffee Ltd. and Golden Triangle Elephant Foundation in northern Thailand that takes care of the elephants rescued from captivity of Thailand’s tourism. Part of the profits from coffee sales go to support the foundation and take care of the animals who produce this very coffee.
4) Nepali Mustang Coffee
Nepali Mustang coffee is a mountaineer’s drink, as it is arguably the best beverage served in the mountain trekking regions of Nepal. Prepared with rum and honey, the coffee grows at high altitudes above 800 meters, has a slightly bitter and very strong flavour, and feels like a crowd of tiny magical goats just ran across your tongue straight into your brain.
5) Sámi coffee with cheese
For people who are as obsessed with coffee as they are addicted to cheese, the Sámi cheese coffee is a wet dream. I first heard of it in Sweden, but only managed to try it weeks later in northern parts of the country at Jokkmokk Sámi market where I got a small slice of the ‘kaffeost’, or coffee cheese, that Sámis put into coffee. It does not really give any special flavour to the coffee itself, but the cheese should be cut into small pieces so that you could pick them from the bottom of the mug later, with coffee seeping through the porous texture of the cheese. The cheese itself is tasteless, so the catch here is ’tofu effect’, when essentially flavourless cheese is turned into an amazing spongy coffee-filled piece of deliciousness.
Originally and traditionally, the coffee cheese was made of reindeer milk, although now I am not really sure where one can buy some of that stuff. Nowadays, cows are the ones to thank for kaffeost, and it is quite an expensive but delightful souvenir to bring from Lapland (never seen it on sale in Norway but it certainly can be bought in Sweden).
6) Kurdish menengiç kahvesi
Technically, Kurdish menengiç kahvesi does not even belong on this list. It is an adopted weird relative of the coffee family, not actually containing any caffeine, but desperately trying to fit in with the rest of the cool coffee family members. I learned about it by accident from my friends in Mardin, and managed to buy a jar just before I left Turkish Kurdistan. And I regretted it for only 5 minutes – exactly how long it took me to drink a small shot of this traditional Kurdish drink. Menengiç, or terebinth berry, is a younger brother of pistachio nut, and it can be consumed as a snack. Roasted or raw berries are ground and sold as oily paste, which you add to the boiling milk (or water) and sugar and mix until the liquid acquires its even and mild brown colour. I must admit, exotic as it is, menengiç kahvesi is one of the most nasty and smelly things I ever tried.
So naturally, I decided to take my jar with me on my travels around Europe, to enlighten the world about the wonders of Kurdistan and ask their opinion about the wannabe coffee made of pistachio berries. Opinions vastly divided, with some people politely gulping menegiç kahvesi to the end while I was choking on my own laughter, some spitting it right away and telling me to destroy the stuff and burn the jar before we all die. There were quite a few individuals who said that menegiç kahvesi smelled like burned tyre, tasted like a tree and left an liquorish aftertaste in their mouth. I found quite a few people who actually loved the drink and made me think that I could start a supply business of Kurdish coffee to Europe. Anyway, menengiç kahvesi is really something to try when you head to Kurdistan.
7) Türk kahvesi
Turkish coffee is a whole new level of coffee drinking, simply because half of your cup is actually very fine coffee grounds that you either leave there or call a fortune-teller (or any person with good imagination) to read your future on the coffee grounds. To read the fortune, you must cover the cup with the saucer and flip it, and leave there for a few minutes to let the coffee grounds slide down the sides of the cup to form patterns, which is what the fortune teller is going to interpret to tell you about the future. There will be a lot of trees and mountains. The coffee is prepared in cezve – a traditional Turkish coffee pot, and I must shamefully admit that I still haven’t mastered this art.
8) Ethiopian coffee
Coffee was an important part of my love-hate relationship with Ethiopia. I was pretty much as impatient to try the real Ethiopian coffee as I was to see the country’s Rastafarians and wildlife.
Ethiopia is where, according to the legend, coffee originally comes from: a goatherd called Kaldi noticed that his goats were eating a certain kind of berries and getting all bouncy and happy, so naturally, he decided to try that stuff himself. I imagine that after not being able to sleep for a very long time, with crazy red eyes, Kaldi arrived to his village and showed the coffee berries to the priest: «Look man, this stuff is pure magic. I have been awake for the past 24 hours and feel like I could herd those goats for another 24 like a champ!» Of course, the priest exclaimed in horror: «This shit is from Devil!» – and threw the berries into the fire. However, the smell of roasted coffee berries was so intense and enticing, that the priest changed his mind and decided to legalise coffee for enjoyment of his village and – centuries later – herds of colonists.
Ethiopian coffee is officially the best coffee you will ever try. It tastes of soil, herbs, sun, and Africa. Ethiopia is as particular about their coffee ceremony as China or Japan about tea. With each meal, Ethiopians drink from one to three small cups of very strong coffee with tenadam – a locally grown herb. Tenadam is served on the side and you are supposed to dip it in the coffee to add herbal flavour to the drink. The coffee itself is prepared in jebena – a typical clay jug with a very slim neck that you put right on the hot embers.
When I close my eyes, I can still vividly imagine those days when I would sit in a roadside coffee house coated in the mist of burning incense, and load on Ethiopian coffee (which, as far as I remember, costs around 10 euro cents if converted to our currency), until even locals would start pointing fingers at me and laughing at the dumb faranji who would not sleep for the next 36 hours. Don’t worry, I slept just well.