Coffee, Cutlets and the Culture of Healing

Dr. P. Ravi Shankar*

Key words: India, Internship, Kerala, medical college, medical students, coffee

I was disoriented in time, place and person. Events were unfolding at a rapid pace. The meeting with the Principal, the completion of admission formalities, the medical checkup in the classroom, and the allotment of rooms in the hostel. We had come back to the main square of the medical college. My father and his uncle were there with me. We decided to go to the college canteen which at that time was run by the Indian Coffee House. It was my first introduction to the venerable institution. The college canteen was a circular structure with windows all around. Bright and cheery though in a tropical, sunny climate it may have been too bright and hot.

Masala Dosas

I still remember we had strong coffee and masala dosas as we were famished. After nearly thirty years I revisited the coffee house during my recent visit to my alma mater. My classmates were now Professors at the college and we had a nice time reliving memories and life experience over coffee and dosas. The waiters in their crisp white uniforms and their flamboyant headgear were still present as were those wearing ‘Gandhi caps’. The dosas were still crisp and roasted a rich golden brown and the white coconut chutney still melted in your mouth.

The Indian Coffee House or ICH as it is affectionately called has a long and chequered history. During the ‘Raj’ the British rulers did not allow Indians access to coffee houses and the concept of a coffee house for Indians began gaining traction. In 1936 the Coffee Cess Committee opened the first India Coffee House in Mumbai. By the 1940s there were already over 50 coffee houses all over British India. In the 1950s the board decided to close down the coffee houses. Encouraged by the Communist leader, AK Gopalan the workers began a movement and formed a cooperative to run the coffee houses and the name was changed to ‘Indian’ Coffee house. The worker’s cooperatives continue to run the coffee houses today.

Coffee House shop at Thampanoor, Kerala

ICH has a strong presence in Kerala, India with many considering it as the largest restaurant chain in the state. The ICH at Medical College, Thrissur remained our favorite haunt between and after classes. The specialty of the house is the strong coffee served in clean but sometimes chipped cups and saucers. The other specialty is the masala dosa which at ICH is prepared using beetroot along with mashed potatoes and carrots. Use of beetroot is uncommon and lends a red color to the filling. Cutlets at ICH are delicious and quite different from the north Indian variety. They are large and tear drop shaped, a rich dark brown, crispy and served with onions and ketchup. Some of us spend more time at ICH than others. We were still a new college and the location was far from tow; a peaceful setting among mango and cashew nut trees. After 5 pm the place used to become much less crowded after the day scholars and faculty and staff left for home by the college buses. Crispy vadas with coconut chutney were another well enjoyed treat. The rich golden brown crispy exterior and the well-cooked white interior were an Epicurean delight. During those days with a limited budget my visits to ICH were limited to once a week.

Our college arts festival was held in a makeshift pavilion in front of the lecture halls and for a week classes and postings came to a halt. Most of us were at the festival venue day and night. Numerous cups of coffee and tea from ICH played an important role in sustaining us during the long creative sessions though many preferred something stronger. Our clinical postings were held in the district hospital in Thrissur town and there was an ICH nearby. Swaraj Round is the geographical center of Thrissur and there were three ICH branches on the round. We used to drop in to ICH to fortify ourselves after we had finished clerking patients and before getting ready to present to our faculty. Ghee roast was another specialty of ICH and was always crisp and tasty. Kerala style appam with black gram curry is available at a few locations.

During our internship we used to visit ICH as proud junior members of our unit. We used to have coffee and snacks and when we were in the second unit of OBGYN (O2) with Professor Paily we could order dosas and cutlets which sustained us through the long afternoons. ICH is present in most medical colleges and other hospitals in Kerala. The food quality at ICH has been consistent over the years. There are or were hotels with better quality of food but many have not been able to sustain and grow for decades.

Trivandrum or Thiruvanathapuram, the capital of the state of Kerala has an iconic, red bricked three storied ICH. During my recent visit to the city I enjoyed the food at the ICH at Thycaud hospital. Among the more expensive items on the menu are Kerala parotta and chicken curry. The chicken curry is brought in a signature oval serving dish and the parotta is crisp and flaky. Something else I have noted only in Kerala is water boiled with either cumin seeds or with something which is known as ‘chukku’ in Kerala. Cumin gives a yellow color to the water and chukka a pleasing light pink one. The color ensures that the water is well-boiled and safe for drinking.

ICH has thus been associated with medical colleges and hospitals in Kerala for over six decades serving tasty, affordable and good quality food. Clinical cases, medical concepts and exam questions have been debated and pored over for many decades. Political debates have raged over the well-worn tables. Over the years a coffee drinking culture has taken root in medical colleges and among the general public. The chain has grown and adapted with the times. I am confident that coffee, cutlets and the culture of healing will continue at the Indian Coffee Houses associated with medical colleges and hospitals for the next six decades!

Author Bio: Dr. Shankar is a medical educator and a clinical pharmacologist with a keen interest in small group learning, the health humanities, rational use of medicines and pharmaco-vigilance. He is a creative writer, hiker and photographer. He has facilitated student learning in different medical schools in Nepal and the Caribbean. He is a faculty member at the IMU Centre for Education, International Medical University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He is a research adviser at the Oceania University of Medicine, Apia, Samoa. You may contact him at: ravi.dr.shankar@gmail.com

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2 comments on “Coffee, Cutlets and the Culture of Healing

  1. humanemedicine on said:

    from medical student, Rishab Revankar, Mt. Sinai School of Medicine:
    I had a chance to check out the article on ICH and med school in Kerala! I was pleasantly surprised to read a very thoughtful essay that places the reader right in the shoes of a resident in Trivandrum! I would also say that it brought back fond memories of my visit to Trivandrum last summer. (Even reading the vivid descriptions of the dosa and paratha recipes… I must say, my mouth is watering!). My regards to Dr. Shankar.

  2. humanemedicine on said:

    From Professor Bhushan Kumar, Chandigarh, India:
    The write up “Coffee, Cutlets and the Culture of Healing” is interesting. The old canteens (rather ramshackle) were a great source of interaction and more importantly to reduce the fear and stress of the new entrants who were mortally afraid of ragging which in India goes to the extent of humiliation and even torture.

    In these canteens (coffee houses) in Southern India (with Masala Dosa, Vada and coconut chatney) –coffee is more popular and is northern and central India- tea is more popular (with us “Pakora’ and ‘Samosa’ is more popular as a snack). I was introduced to coffee rather late- during my internship. Now more and more people in north are taking coffee and so many ‘Café- Coffee Day’ and ‘Starbucks’ are opening their outlets- (but they serve tee as well).

    But going back-nostalgia is more soothing when we talk about the pleasant experiences (in the present context). It took me also back to the memory lane- decades earlier. Mind can go back years and miles in a wink.

    However, the healing components – pertaining to self or the patients is not much mention.

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