I have coffee every morning, very strong and black, brewed from a blend of my own, which is half moca-java and half espresso, in a drip coffee-maker. As I sipped my coffee the other morning, I started thinking. For the rest of the day I have coffee only once in a while, at lunch or dinner if I eat out or between meals if a friend urges me to join her or him. Once in a while I may have coffee between meals; but then I like it with milk or, preferably, with cream. I consider decaf a fake coffee as well as a contradiction. I inherit some of this particular habit of mine from my Japanese background.
<Koh-hee> is Japanese for coffee. Obviously the word is related to the English word, even though historically it derives directly from the Dutch word <koffie>.
Coffee and koh-hee are both brewed from ground roasted coffee beans. But as anyone who traveled in Japan well knows, they are not quite the same; in fact, they are more different than alike.
For one, coffee in Japan is expensive, or so it was until recently. The price has come down drastically in the last decade with the invasion of Starbucks and their competitors. Japanese coffee is also darker and stronger; and it is customarily taken with cream, rarely black. American coffee, by contrast, is lighter, and, to the Japanese palate unaccustomed to it, it tastes weak, bland, or even tasteless. The reason for this difference resides in the social institution of coffee drinking, and that is where the more fundamental difference between coffee and koh-hee is found.
Koh-hee is a specialized drink. It signifies special occasions. It is a treat, and it carries a romantic aura. A young man takes his girlfriend for a cup of coffee; they sit down, order from a menu, and exchange sweet nothings tête-à-tête. More likely they also order some patisserie. Classic music filters through the tastefully appointed room. Older people frequent the place, too, more likely professors and professionals, musicians and artists and writers -- the intellectual set. Koh-hee is prepared with special care. Beans are marked and sorted, and knowingly blended, and the coffee, more often individually ground, is brewed with the care of a connoisseur. Then, it is imbibed appreciatively. One sips, never gulps. There is no haste; slow is good. People who make coffee at home follow the same painstaking procedure. A cup of koh-hee used to cost two or three hundred yen a cup; it could go up, at one time, to something like $5 in more exclusive establishments. "I'll buy you a coffee" does not translate well into Japanese literally. Conversely, a Japanese who invites you to have koh-hee will say something which in connotation comes closer to "I'll buy you a drink." The Japanese expression is more often "I'll treat you to a coffee" ("ogotte ageru"). Koh-hee is a treat.
The public establishment where koh-hee is served is a café, European in style with that elitist air of elegance and high intellectualism. Before the age of CDs, therefore, classic music on LP was not only a special service but also served as a PR marker giving the café the desirable intellectual ambience and, therefore, an unmistakable distinction. In those days when LPs were still too expensive for young people to own, going out for a coffee was in part attending a concert. There is the word <kafeh> in the Japanese vocabulary, and the coffee establishment may be called that. But the kafeh in Japanese is a bar or saloon where alcoholic beverages are served, and carries a pejorative connotation as in the phrase <kafeh no jokyû> (a waitress in a saloon), though there is a Japanese word for the saloon, too, which is <sakaba>, a drinking establishment. The chief server in a sakaba is more likely a <madamu>. Occasionally, we see the sign <koh-hee ten>, literally coffee shop, to distinguish it from <kafeh>. But the koh-hee places are more commonly known by the Japanese designation, kissaten.
Kissaten is a curious name for an establishment that specializes in serving coffee. The word literally means tea-drinking place. The confusion is not so odd, however. Though coffee drinking did not become popularly accepted institution until the Meiji Restoration, there are earlier historical records which refer to the drink as <koh-hee cha>, that is to say, coffee-tea. Coffee was seen as one variety of tea. The kissaten, therefore, corresponds to the British tea-room. In fact, kissaten serves tea as well as koh-hee -- but English tea, not green tea. Connoisseurship that underlies coffee drinking in Japan parallels that of the English afternoon tea. Like the tea in the tea-room, koh-hee at a kissaten is an afternoon event. One did not think of going out for a coffee before noon. But unlike tea, koh-hee is hierarchically marked; workers don't go to kissaten unless for a special occasion and without dressing up accordingly.
Coffee in America, by contrast, is an everyday drink. It is a universal breakfast drink; it may accompany or follow a midday meal and dinner; and it may be had between meals in the proverbial <coffee break> in mid-morning, mid-afternoon, or long after dinner. When a koh-hee cost two dollars in Japan, a cup of coffee in America was 25 cents. It is a drink of princes and paupers alike. It is a drink of the people of all classes, except for confirmed or converted tea-drinkers or teetotalers, a decided minority. Interestingly, even though American coffee is normally so pale, the medicinal connotation as a stimulant is persistent. We hear people say: "I'm getting sleepy; I need a cup of coffee." Coffee is for perking one up. As a 1652 British handbill claimed, coffee "quickens the spirits, and makes the heart lightsome. . ."
The everyday beverage in Japan that corresponds to American coffee is <bancha>, the green tea of low quality which, when brewed, is hardly green. Everyone of every class habitually drinks bancha. It is a plebeian drink. It is consumed for perking one up as well as for quenching thirst -- like American coffee. It is poured and served at all times, during the meals and between them, morning, afternoon, and evening, and it's more domestic. It is primarily for home consumption. A guest in the middle class home will be served <sencha> rather than bancha -- green tea of higher quality made from greener, more tender tea leaves. In homes of higher status family members habitually imbibe sencha. One gulps bancha; one sips sencha appreciatively; one savors the taste of koh-hee.
In its dissemination through Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe, coffee took on different guises as a beverage and as social institution. The standard coffee in Italy is <espresso>. The word refers to the process of brewing in which steam is pressed through finely ground coffee quickly -- express. Slowly brewed espresso makes a horrendous drink. It is served very strong in a small cup -- a demitasse. It does not do a job of quenching one's thirst; a glass of water is served or ordered with the coffee. The Italian word caffè, therefore, conjures up a totally different idea from the English word coffee.
Caffè is normally had at the establishment called <il bar>, that is to say, the bar. The bar in America is found behind closed doors; it is dark and reeks of alcohol, which it delivers as its specialty. It is normally closed in the morning. The Italian bar is open to the street, begins its business early in the morning, and serves alcoholic beverages as well as coffee, breakfast buns (like cornetti), and soft drinks. One places an order with the bartender, goes to the cashier to pay, and walks back to the counter to hand the receipt for the drink. One drinks caffè most typically standing up at the bar; there may be chairs on the sidewalk but they are expressly for tourists and <pensionati>, retirees. Espresso is not only brewed in high speed but is also quaffed speedily.
Caffè may be served as espresso straight (generally sweetened with sugar to taste) or modified with milk either as caffè latte or as cappuccino (so named after the cloak of Franciscan monks, the Capuchins). It is in any case an indispensable breakfast beverage in Italy; but it may be served at other times. Espresso may be had between meals or after dinner. Caffè latte and cappuccino are for breakfast or leisurely drink between meals because these are "fat" beverages. They come closest to the koh-hee at the kissaten. Ordering cappuccino after dinner, which has become prevalent in America, is an atrocity that no Italian can ever imagine. Espresso after dinner chases the palate of the lingering taste of the rich dinner. In Italy the bar is the only place where caffè is brewed and served. When one orders a coffee after dinner at a restaurant, the waiter places an order with the nearest bar (often conveniently next door) to have it delivered, and then brings it to the table. One can be assured of good coffee at a bar adjacent to a fine restaurant.
Espresso can be had today in Paris, London, and Berlin, too. But outside Italy it is a special beverage. In Italy it is something routine and indispensable. It is the only coffee; there is the watered-down coffee, derisively called <caffè americano>, but that is exclusively for tourists.
Since the 17th century, London had coffeehouses apart from tea-rooms, and so did American cities -- New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. Coffeehouses were apparently rowdy places, more like saloons, where political actions brewed as well as coffee, in contrast to elegant tea-rooms that catered to more genteel sectors of the society. Coffee shops in modern America are not quite the same as Italian bars though one may associate them with breakfast. They offer coffee cakes, so called presumably because they were designed to accompany coffee. They match the American coffee, but obviously too heavy to go with koh-hee and too sweet to accompany cappuccino. American coffee shops are more often something like lunch bars, nothing like koh-hee ten.
American coffee is an everyday, universal beverage. Italian caffè is more specialized in use. Koh-hee in Japan is a luxury item. Or, rather, it was until a decade or so ago. Starbucks broke the cultural boundaries but not entirely. Americans still have not quite taken to the espresso; most go for <capuchino> and <lattay>. They drink sitting down at a table or on a stool at a counter, not standing up (except those commuters on the run), and, God help us, even <expresso> is served in a paper cup. That makes any espresso unpalatable.
Then, there is Turkish coffee, too, and <ka-fei> in China. But I have been to Beijing only briefly, and I have never lived in Turkey. To think of it, I have not been back to Rome a good while, nor in Japan. I wonder how young Japanese are taking to Starbucks.
Coffee is coffee is coffee, of course, and yet it is not. There is caffè latte in Rome and café au lait in Paris; and it's Milchkaffee in Vienna, and they are substantially different. Here lies the complexity and delight of cross-cultural encounters and the material for semiotic study of which this little essay is an example. I like coffee strong and dark, as a special drink, in the morning and occasionally after dinner, and if I have coffee between meals I like it with cream. So, here I am, chanpon personified, a part Japanese, a part American, a part Italian.
T. Kaori Kitao, 02.14.02, courtesy of Chanpon