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Coffee across cultures

Coffee beans and likely allies.

Dirt, Mud, Tar, Morning Joe. Despite these quotidian nicknames, the preparation of our favourite morning drink is a magical experience. In its gritty, undiluted form, coffee is a vortex as black as the sunless early morning sky. But when it collides with milk, a plume of liquid light billows in the bottom of the cup in a Big Bang. Primordial froth collects at the top, oozing and bubbling until it settles into a delectable fluffy cloud.

Few drinks can claim to have its own creation myth, and none have a history as vivid and multicultural. According to an old Ethiopian legend, a shepherd named Kaldi discovered coffee after he noticed that his goats became jumpy and jittery after eating the berries of a mysterious tree growing on the mountainside. After trying the berries himself, he was overcome with inspiration, feeling an irresistible compulsion to dance, sing and write poetry. From then on, coffee spread across the world as cafés sprung up from the Ottoman Empire to Europe, becoming a symbol of friendship and sociability.

For me, coffee has always been a way to meet new people and renew connections – the one constant in my peripatetic life. When I moved from America to Australia in 2015, I encountered an entirely new culture and continent. I found that I didn’t have much in common with people. I had a different accent and a different sense of humour. But I soon discovered that Australians love coffee – and they knew how to brew a serious cup. Two chairs and a small rickety table on the sidewalk would bridge the chasm between two very different cultures. The lingo was different (flat white, long black, “let’s get a coffee” instead of “let’s get coffee”), but at least it was an icebreaker.

My transition from school to university was a lot less daunting, despite the sea of white tents that covered the Front Lawn during O-Week. Following my instincts, I gravitated towards the different political clubs. The coffee meetups that followed allowed other students to explain to me the alphabet soup of club and society acronyms and how to correctly pronounce Honi Soit. Not knowing the first thing about university life or the people I was talking to, coffee provided an excuse to spend time with a stranger, to exchange pleasantries and to bond with people.

Yet, the history of coffee in Australia is more about social division than sociability. It is an integral part of the story of sectarianism and anti-immigration sentiment. The drink as we know it was first brought to Australia by enterprising migrants from Italy after the Second World War but was given a cold reception. It seems surprising to us today, but Italian cuisine was seen as something that sullied the Anglo-Celtic character of the country post-colonisation, which Prime Minister Robert Menzies labelled “British… to the boot heels”. In the 1960s, apart from the Italian community, only bohemians and teenagers were willing to frequent migrant-run cafés. Whether you drank coffee or tea signalled whether you were an insider or outsider. It was only until the 1980s that coffee became mainstream, spurred along by inner-city gentrification, leading to the emergence of the uniquely Australian flat-white and a slightly pretentious coffee culture.

Vietnamese cuisine, with its signature drink being its iced coffee, shared a similar struggle in being accepted by broader Australian society. Part of the reason is that foreign food was seen as something destabilising rather than enriching to Australia’s traditions and heritage. In the 1980s, refugees driven out of their homeland by the Vietnam War set up restaurants in working-class suburbs like Cabramatta and Canley Vale in Sydney and Richmond and Footscray in Melbourne. Just like Italian cafés, Vietnamese restaurants were initially only frequented by people inside the migrant community. It’s a testament to how eating and cooking is an inherently social activity that evokes a sense of comfort and familiarity – think of your favourite foods or grandparents’ recipes.

Vietnamese iced coffee, made from drip-filtered French-style dark roast, condensed milk, and plenty of ice cubes, exemplifies how cultural exchange occurs in a colonial context. French settlers, wanting to replicate the culinary comforts of home, planted coffee on a mass scale in the country’s central highlands. There was only one problem – as milk was not widely consumed in Vietnam, it had to be transported by ship in a non-perishable form, which is why the Vietnamese use condensed milk. The later addition of ice cubes made the beverage more appropriate for the hot and humid climate. Despite its French origins, Vietnam has appropriated the drink and coffee culture as its own, re-exporting it around the world wherever the Vietnamese diaspora exists.

Coffee introduces you to new people and cultures in the same way that your much more sociable friend at a party brings you into conversations that you would otherwise not have the courage to enter. I can still drink coffee in isolation, but with campus shut and my usual venues closed, I’m struggling to get more involved in university life.

An old Turkish saying captures our predicament:

“The heart wants neither coffee nor coffee houses. The heart wants a friend. Coffee is only the excuse.”

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