A peep into café-coffee culture

Today is International Coffee Day. In the last couple of decades, a café culture is silently emerging on the scene of Dhaka, the capital of a heavily tea drinking nation. Nahid Riyasad explores different aspects of this coffee drinking culture in Dhaka, in accordance to its origin and history.



Bangladesh is one of the largest and finest producers of tea around the globe as well as an important exporter too. Predominantly, following the legacy of British colonial period, we are a heavy tea drinking nation. To be honest, the bitter taste of coffee does not go very well with our taste bud. Defying all these odds, a café culture has been silently developing in country’s capital Dhaka. However, only a couple of cafes have managed to serve a decent cup of coffee so far. Still, the emerging culture is spreading across the capital with enormous popularity among the young generation. The coffee places are offering a sophisticated ambiance with through-out lighting, intoxicating aroma of grinded coffee beans along with freshly baked light-bites, what else does one need to attract a hoard of young generation. Today we will dive deep inside the history of coffee culture, Bangladeshi coffee industry, the growing café culture in Dhaka and its different aspects.

Before exploring Dhaka café culture, a glimpse on the overall history of coffee in our known world might come in handy. The roasted coffee bean that we enjoy today with a dollop of boiling water was first served in the Sufi shrines in Yemen around middle of the 15th century. It was in Arabia where coffee seeds were roasted and consumed the way we do today. Coffee seeds were exported there from East Africa. Yemeni farmers then started cultivating the plant. By the middle of the next century, coffee plants have reached Persia (Iran), Turkey and North Africa. From there it quickly invaded the globe and gained enormous popularity among people. Now, besides tea, coffee is the most popular hot beverage that people enjoy to freshen themselves up from time to time.

Coffee culture or café culture is a trend where activities are circled around coffee shops. We need to keep in mind that this is not a new trend, at least not for Europe. The origination of coffeehouses can be traced back as early as the introduction of coffee as a drink, in 14th century Turkey. Coffee houses both in Western and Eastern Europe are actually social hubs where artists, intellectuals and writers gather around to share their new ideas. During the 17th and 18th century, café culture in London became immensely popular among writers, artists, socialites; political and commercial activities frequently took place in those communal spaces along a cup of freshly brewed coffee. Europe has developed and continued a coffee culture- synonymous to relaxing on the outside patio with friends and family while having a small but concentrated cup of coffee. On the other hand, North America has adopted another kind of culture which can be traced back to their high-capitalist culture. North America’s recent coffee culture is hugely dominated by Starbucks where people get coffee on the go, in tall cups with fancy add-ons (whipped cream, different flavors, pumpkin spice etc). Two distinctive café cultures from both part of the Atlantic have influenced our on-growing trend of café-culture in different ways. .

Now, with the emergence of the new middle-class in Dhaka, cafes have gained a particular place in the hearts of the young generation. Especially university going students who can spare a few extra notes are some of the frequent visitors in the trendy coffee shops around the capital. It is mainly during the first decade of the new millennium when the coffee culture kick started in Dhaka. Two decades later, the culture is still growing and thriving. There are only a handful of cafes who are serving a really decent cup of coffee but the scenario is metamorphosing as some new players are at the park with serious skills. Parallel to the café houses that are constructed with the essence of European cafes, roadside vendors are also selling cheap mini-pack instant coffee and there are a growing number of carts offering cold coffee, a smart given the hot and humid climate of the country.However, there are classed differenced within this emerging culture. While the international franchisees such as North End Coffee and Coffee World are catering towards the affluent youth, street side vendors with instant coffees from Nescafe are serving general people. There are several reasons playing vital roles in the development of this particular culture in Dhaka. We will look upon the café culture from different perspectives. A vital reason could be lack of greenery in the town of nearly 20 million people. There are absolutely no space whatsoever around us to catch a fresh air or go for a long walk along the nature. As a result, people, usually the affluent class seek resort in indoor places, places that can give them a vibe of nice ambiance. Relying on this, cafes have started to pop up in posh neighbourhoods of the city, attracting customers with cozy, warm lighted congenial environment, fascinating aroma of freshly grounded beans, light refreshments and last but not the least, a decent cup of hot mocha or just flat white.

In the last couple of years, another kind of coffee station has been popping up around the city, cold coffee carts. These are mainly stationed around university areas and shopping malls, again a trend targeted at the young generation. These carts have very simple menu and use basic ingredients to make an icy glass of cold coffee, a roadside drink with the potential to cool any soul in our scorching weather. At a very cheap rate (as cheap as 35-40 tk), one can easily grab a cold drink before or after a class lecture. However, these drinks do not essentially harbor the true essence of coffee, rather they use cheap grinded coffee to give a flavor of coffee; otherwise it’s just a milk based cold drink.

We spoke with several university students who  frequent at their nearby coffee shops. Rubaiya Tasmia, an university student in Dhanmondi becomes enthusiastic when she is asked about her coffee drinking habit, ‘It’s the most important drink of my day. I cannot start my day without a hot cup of latte, with added hazelnut flavor from the nearby café.’ Echoing her, Jahid Bin Hasan, whose university is at Banani, says the same but his choice is Americano with brown sugar. While talking to the students, many have mentioned that some of their teachers are so obsessed with coffee that they often bring a large cup of takeout coffee, to keep them company during the class. Many affluent students are following the café culture religiously and enjoy cups of the soothing elixir from time to time. According to many, North End Coffee Roasters, Gloria Gean’s Coffes, Coffee World, Crimson Cup are some of the best cafes around the city.

Another aspect of coffee in Bangladesh could be labeled as a move from international corporation— Nestle. Introducing their ground breaking instant coffee brand Nescafe that thrived in Australia during 1980s’ and 1990s’, they played a major role in the emerging café/coffee culture. My first cup — their television advertisement from 2012 with an English slogan for Bangaladeshi consumers stormed the local market. Nescafe introduced small portions of coffee in mini-packs, worth between tk 2 – tk 10, really a bargain to get the taste of your first of coffee. From there on, people from even a low income level can get a taste of coffee whenever they want.

The developing café culture of Dhaka has some message underneath the plain reality of an innocent culture growing. Most of the decent cafés around are franchisee based multinational businesses. Nescafe, almost synonymous to coffee in our country is also from a foreign giant. This industry is actually based on cultural and corporate hegemony of the west. to make a profit from the east, they introduce their product by smartly packaging it as a culture. As the target market is mainly the young generation, the intervention is both culturally and economically effective. Should a culture is established, the profit will be immense over a longer period of time. Alongside, the coffee as commodity culture will also galvanise. And the generation will pass on their culture to the next generation which will only ensure more and more profit to fuel the multinational corporations.

There is no denying of a hot cup of coffee. A café-coffee culture is developing in Dhaka with the promise of a decent cup of coffee, a soothing relaxing environment and a guaranteed goodtime. As a growing trend, many new cafes are coming on the scene but very few have managed to create a long lasting impression. Then, there are street-side outlets. Proper cafes as the high-priests of coffee, street side cold coffees or instant Nescafe caters the puplic, mostly young. This culture, the love for this drink, is a result of cultural exchange or to some extent cultural domination of profit making corporations. Setting aside the debate of political economy of café-coffee culture, lets we enjoy a a large cup of hazelnut mocha with a graceful white swan made by latte art



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