Bite Me: Coffeebucks

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

In Egypt we crave sauces. The meat is secondary. Vol-au-vent, sharkesa, fattah, ayy hagga b'il béchamel-the main ingredient becomes lost in translation in the same way that when we tell a story (or teach for that matter) the central facts are less important than the way the story is told. We embellish our monologues with stylish rhetoric and our food with stylish reductions.

This extends even to coffee. A cappuccino, already a creamy compromise, requires an adornment of hazelnut syrup. Everything needs whipped cream. My friends love their caramel macchiatos and caffé mochas. Her royal self tends towards passion fruit lattes. Me, I prefer my coffee coffee-flavored.

At Coffeebucks, when I order straight up black coffee, the baristas are puzzled. Or maybe they just resent it. If there were more people like me they'd be out of a job.

It didn't used to be this way. Back in the day we didn't have cafes. We didn't even have real coffee. We kick-started our mornings with a freeze-dried abomination called Nescafe; thought lattes were a brand of fume-spewing Czech motorcycle; and affogato an Italian term of endearment that you couldn't mention in polite company.

This changed when some friends of mine opened the first Cairo café as Cilantro in 1999. Modeled along English and American lines, with a nod to the sandwich shop Prét-A-Manger, there was exactly one café in the entire city, on 26 JulyStreet in Zamalek. When another opened across from the old campus, there were demonstrations of joy.

I was in charge of the music, so in those early days Cilantros played a cool mix of lounge and house, but all that has changed. I was in there the other day and I kid you not they were playing a frickin' Kylie Minogue song. What has the world come to? Cafés have gone all corporate now. It's not my cup of joe anymore.

I have not, mind you, reverted to Nescafe. True, it still has a place in our culture. It still has its uses. Like for potting plants or if your second grader is working on an art project, but you can't go back once you've tasted the real thing. It would be like buying a Java motorcycle after riding a Harley Davidson. (See what I did there? In the U.S. java is a slang term for coffee and here a brand of fume-spewing Czech motorcycle and so when I reached for a simile ... oh never mind.)

The point is we're living in a new world now-one with texture and choice and variety and flavor. And one where you don't have to look around all embarrassed at the start of a committee meeting cause you can't get that damn little packet open. Such bitter remarks will undoubtedly put me in hot water with the instant coffee crowd, but if you are one of those who "just likes the taste" of Nescafe, then please unfriend me from Facebook now. I don't want to know you.

Café culture has swept Cairo like some misguided spell from the sorcerer's apprentice-they keep coming and coming and coming-and we've loved every minute of it. We've lapped it up. We make reservations and stand in line; we get the coffee shakes if Cinnabon doesn't open on time; and we've made Beano's our office away from the office. It's all good.

It's all great, in fact. Coffee is king. It's better than anything, better even then men: It smells good in the morning; you can always warm it up; it comes with endless refills-and best of all, it's out of your system by the next day.

Yep, we're addicted. We love it. And I can't help but notice that even at the height of this revolutionary fervor, as people are revolting against all things foreign and imperialist, whereas we might torch a KFC or boycott hamburgers, I don't think I'll ever see the day when I switch on CNN and see an angry mob throwing a fiery piece of pooh through a Coffeebucks window. This would be counter-revolutionary indeed.


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