COMMENTARY, Sept 23 — Some of us can’t fathom starting our day without a cup of coffee. Our daily dose of caffeine, be it a kopi O kaw at your neighbourhood kopitiam or a quick instant coffee at the office.
My mornings start with me boiling and grinding coffee beans. I fold the unbleached filter paper and place it in the dripper, wetting the paper with hot water to get rid of the papery taste while warming the dripper at the same time.
Then comes the careful pouring with a gooseneck kettle. It’s a meditative activity, one that primes me for the busy, often chaotic day ahead.
This is brilliant for five, six days a week. Not to mention cheaper than grabbing a takeaway beverage from some coffee chain. But we all need a break, even if it’s from making coffee for ourselves.
It’s at times like these that I crave an espresso-based coffee. I can always make pour-over coffee or scoop up some instant coffee granules, but there’s nothing like the dark liquid manna that is pulled from an espresso machine by a skilful barista.
Of course, it’s tempting to just order a long black or a cappuccino; these work for a reason. They are reliable and taste much the same wherever we get them. (Cue the sound of baristas and café owners laughing their heads off.)
Other times we want something different. We wish to express ourselves uniquely, to stand apart from the crowd. With apologies to Dale Carnegie, but you might consider this a guide on How to stop worrying and start drinking coffee... the way you like it.
So, how do you “espresso yourself”?
Sometimes we are drawn to the superficial; we delight in the surface, in what can be seen.
This might be the entire raison d’être for latte art. (This, and Instagram, one assumes.) A heart, a tulip, a rosetta. A steady hand and a practised eye — and above all, complete confidence on the part of the barista.
Whatever your reason, there’s no denying that a beautiful cup of coffee can cheer you up immensely.
There is a simple, unadorned sort of joy, for instance, when barista Michael Woon serves me one of his milk coffees at Ebony & Ivory in Cheras. His latte art isn’t the most intricate — he isn’t trying to enter a competition — but earnest and modest.
When there is passion in every cup, you can taste it. With your tongue and lips, of course, but first with your eyes.
There is nothing wrong when we delight in the surface, in what can be seen. Just because what is obvious and visible is pretty, doesn’t mean what’s beneath isn’t substantial too.
Again, take Michael’s coffee as an illustration: he sometimes makes freeze-distilled milk for a creamier cuppa. The process of freezing whole milk, then flipping it upside down to thaw into a second container is laborious at best.
But when the milk solids melt and drip down, you are left with a block of ice above and an utterly creamy and sweet milk concentrate below. With a little bit of effort, we can express our truest selves both externally and internally.
We can have the best of both worlds.
Sometimes, however, we rage against the world we find ourselves in. Sometimes we enjoy going against the grain.
Why not have breakfast for dinner or add salt to our desserts and sugar to our stews? (The former is why there are all-day breakfast cafés, after all, so perhaps this isn’t exactly an act of gentle rebellion.)
I had mentioned I brew filter coffee most days of the week, hence I seek out espresso-based coffee on my days off. But did you know you can use espresso blends for filter brewing too?
I certainly didn’t, until one of the friendly baristas at Ground Coffee in Damansara Uptown — it was either Jordan or Json; my memory, alas, isn’t what it used to be — introduced me to this game-changing switcheroo.
It wasn’t, in case you’re wondering, yet another hipster barista hack. This was that time last year when the Klang Valley was beset by one water cut after another. Cafés and restaurants alike had to scramble to figure out how to remain open, serve customers and persuade no one to use the restrooms.
Ground Coffee’s owner Derry Teh had shared with me that their Pink Panther Blend is a marriage of two Colombian coffees. One of these coffees had undergone anaerobic processing, where coffee is fermented without oxygen.
The resultant cuppa is super sweet yet surprisingly acidic, with clear notes of strawberry and vanilla. Beyond the standard cup of black coffee such as an Americano, this espresso blend works great when brewed via pour-over method (especially when the espresso machine can’t be used due to the aforementioned water shortage).
Even long after the water supply returned to normal, I’d order their Pink Panther blend as a filter coffee. It’s perfect with a buttery croissant and my little contribution to doing things the opposite way... and learning that there is no one way of doing things.
Sometimes, you don’t want to do anything at all. You don’t even want to get out of bed, particularly after burning the midnight oil or yet another Netflix binge. (Sex Education season three, anyone?)
When you crawl out of bed, the sun is too bright and the sky is too... wide. People around you are too cheerful, annoyingly so. You’re in danger of prematurely becoming a grouch.
You need a little pick-me-up.
Me, I head over to Sunday Coffee & Cakes in OUG where barista Darren Lee makes my takeaway coffee nice and intense. (He’ll adjust the strength accordingly, if you let him know what you prefer.)
It’s the perfect hangover cure: tangy orange juice and a strong flat white to go. All the vitamin C that I need to rejuvenate my senses; all the caffeine to restore my soul.
The café is located in a quiet neighbourhood so it’s easy to people watch as customers come and go; most of them like me, getting takeaway coffee. Most of them like me, zombie-like till that first energising sip.
Sometimes, you want a little of everything: you wish to be shallow yet conceal more substance than the casual eye would reveal; you wish to buck the trend and apply yourself with constructive defiance; you wish to stop feeling smashed and just be smashing, to eschew enervation and embrace exuberance.
(You might also wean yourself of alliteration; if you manage, tell me now.)
To this end, my dangerously delicious dose of double trouble is the dirty matcha with an espresso shot at spacegrey in SS2, PJ. For when you need that extra hit of caffeine: matcha and espresso go together heavenly.
Terrence Goh, spacegrey’s cool-as-cucumber owner-barista, tells me the beverage will give me all the antioxidants and caffeine I need. He’s probably right; at any rate, this tastes far more pleasant than a fistful of nutritional supplements from the pharmacy.
Sometimes we want more than just coffee. What we seek is an opportunity — “a safe space” as Dr Jean Milburn would put it — to be ourselves and express who we are.
To quote Walt Whitman, from his 1855 poem “Song of Myself”:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
We are who we are. And we contain multitudes.
Let us be proud and joyous and celebrate every part of ourselves, to love even what others reject as the ugly bits (there are no ugly bits) and to drink coffee... however we enjoy it. “Espresso yourself” for no one else can do this for you.
For more slice-of-life stories, visit lifeforbeginners.com.