Coffee Trends: Cultural Appreciation or Cultural Appropriation?
Coffee is more than just a drink – it’s what gets most of us through the day! We also know that there’s a whole world of coffee culture and tradition that we try to do justice to in the work we do. In coffee shops around the world, people are always on the lookout for the latest trend, and these can spread like wildfire across social media.
But what’s the truth behind the trends? Many of the drinks that we consider to be ‘trends’ are actually embedded in cultures from all over the world. As we explore these drinks, we’ll be looking at their origins, and how we can enjoy them whilst respecting their history and cultural impact.
We’re starting with a drink that’s been commonplace for a while now – chai. Like all the drinks on this list, chai is steeped in history and cultural significance – something that often gets taken for granted in today’s coffee shops.
Firstly, there’s no such thing as ‘chai tea’ – that’s just like saying ‘tea tea’! Chai, or masala chai, to give it its full name, originates in India, and is a blend of warming spices and black tea. Masala refers to a mixture of spices (in this case, things like cardamom, black pepper, nutmeg, clove and star anise). So unless you just want a cup of plain tea, it’s masala chai you’re after.
It’s easy to see why masala chai has been the topic of cultural appropriation debates. Chaiwalas (street vendors of chai) would probably struggle to recognise what Western coffee shops sell as ‘chai’, and the idea of people saying ‘chai tea’ left right and centre is an obvious source of frustration. Not only is authentic masala chai delicious in its own right, but it also has a rich cultural significance in many parts of the world.
One of the drinks trends that has become most commonplace is the ‘turmeric latte’. It’s tasty, it’s a bit different from the norm, and it looks good enough to feature on people’s Instagram feeds – in short, it seems like the perfect invention for the modern-day coffee shop menu.
The truth is that what we know as the turmeric latte has been an important part of the Ayurvedic tradition for centuries, known as Haldi Doodh. Also known as ‘Golden Milk’, Haldi Doodh can be a simple combination of turmeric and milk or can contain other warming spices like cardamom, ginger and black pepper. As well as having all of the benefits of turmeric (a potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant), it’s really delicious.
It’s been argued that the surging popularity of Haldi Doodh under the name ‘turmeric latte’ constitutes cultural appropriation, and there’s definitely some truth to that. Just like with coffee, it’s important to understand the history and journey of the drink you enjoy, and knowing about the significance of Haldi Doodh as an Ayurvedic tradition just makes it even more special.
The tradition of brewing matcha can be traced back to 7th Century China and the Tang Dynasty, before migrating East to Japan, where its limited availability secured its place as a status symbol. It’s now easier than ever to find matcha around the world, but with that growth comes a loss of appreciation for matcha’s importance in Japanese culture. Don’t get us wrong – if matcha can be enjoyed by a wider range of people, that should be celebrated! But it’s always good to know the other things that make it special, outside of matcha lattes and other Instagrammable drinks.
Matcha is not just a generic tea, it’s produced by picking the very youngest and most vibrant tea leaves as they start to grow. These leaves are full of chlorophyll, which results in an incredibly complex, umami-rich taste.
Matcha is graded by its quality, with a variety of culinary grade types, which are lower in quality. The highest grade matcha – ceremonial grade – is reserved for drinking alone, and is used in traditional Japanese matcha ceremonies. It’s also packed full of healthy stuff like antioxidants, and is thought to help with better concentration, and even helping to keep your skin healthy!
This might be one of the oldest traditions of the lot, and can be traced back to the Olmec people who inhabited what is now Mexico, around 1900BCE. Remnants of ceramic vessels have been found, where cacao had been fermented and brewed. Although it was the Mayans and Aztecs that we more commonly associate with cacao, the Olmec were the earliest adopters on record.
Today, brewed cacao is seeing a resurgence, and for good reason. It can give a similar effect to caffeine, thanks to theobromine – which gives a caffeine-like perk, without the crash. It also contains tryptophan, a natural antidepressant amino acid, enhancing relaxation.
If you try it, try grinding it and brewing like you would do a cafetière. It’s like a cross between tea and coffee, with the natural fruity characteristics of cacao. It’s really interesting stuff – even more so when you can think back on its historical and cultural impact.
We’re at a point in time where it’s never been easier to explore the world from your own backyard, and that’s a brilliant thing. Just through food and drink, you can get right to the centre of the world’s different cultures – so next time you see a chai or matcha on a menu, enjoy it – just remember how it ended up there in the first place…