It was during a travel, prior to the shooting of a documentary, that I reached the side of the city that was jutting into the sea. My tongue was tingling for a cup of tea. And there was a shed, which was partly a C-class shop and partly a tea shop. The board hanging in front of it was interesting: Cafe de Thommy. Suddenly, I remembered Cafe de Ganga, which stood opposite the new hostel of Maharajah’s College on Hospital Road and was run by Gangadharan, a playmate of Chinmayananda Swamy in his early life. It was K.N. Bharathan Master who had told me not to worry about the name, which meant the coffee shop of Gangadharan, aka Ganga. But, Cafe de Thommy outwitted even Ganga’s play.
It was Thommy’s coffee shop. Not Thomman’s. Even the name had a coastal culture. Inside, there were two benches and two desks. There was no shelf for snacks. In its place, close to the wall, there was a palm-leaf hat on one rack, and below that two oars had been kept crossed. A stuffed shell of a turtle was hanging above that. It was like a logo from which strange meanings could be deduced.
The protagonist was Thommy himself. He was the only worker in the cafe and in the shop at the front. There was not even a shadow of a companion. Does he serve in his cafe only what he makes? His looks gave the impression that he was a perfect insertion in that atmosphere. He was pitch-black with a Ho Chi Minh beard. He wore Bermudas and a sleeveless vest. He wiped his beard with the Turkish towel on his shoulder and asked what I wanted with a gesture.
“Tea.” “Then,” he asked with a gesture. “To eat.” “Big or small?” He gestured again. I was hungry, so I said “medium”. Monsieur Thommy shook his head and went to the other side of the door. The curtain on the door was half red and half blue. After some time, he appeared with three pieces of steaming hot appam. “Curry?” “Can be egg.”
The heat of the chilli pierced the onion that had turned clear and not mushy, and the boiled egg came on that base. It had the same texture of the egg roast that I used to get regularly in my childhood. In those days, egg roast was like that. Then, sometime later, the mix changed. The texture was wrong and there was no taste. Onion turned mushy and the chilli mix became a sauce.
The next version came as a loose mix that had either green chilli or dried chilli with sprinkling of ginger and garlic and without the heat of the spicy red chilli. It was after the new version had changed colour and the old taste, which was hot and used to last long after the food was eaten, had become the great joy of a bygone era that this egg roast appeared in Cafe de Thommy. It was a mouth-watering sight.
There was a minute difference in flavour. It had cumin. The abundance of dry red chilli, with coriander, pepper and cinnamon, brought red to the fore. The taste of ginger-garlic paste was subtle. There was no grainy texture.
However, without beating onion into a pulp, it declared solidarity with the flavour of a bygone era. It was a Cafe de Thommy special!
Still, I had a doubt. Haven’t my taste buds explored this flavour sometime earlier? I tried to recollect the flavours that I had enjoyed. I thought of different combinations. I was sure that, if I added a few things more, a familiar taste would appear. I added ground coconut and diced tomato, and, instead of sliced pieces, I put chopped onion. Then when I cooked it in my mind’s pan, popping mustard seeds, and tasted it, I whispered the name of a region that was known for its spicy flavours — Chettinad. Chettinad dishes made of chicken, mutton, fish and vegetables lined up in my mind. But, amidst them, there was none with egg.
Hats off! This is Monsieur Thommy’s own version. May be we could try to relate it to Chettinad. But, why should we make that futile attempt? Even without that, the taste is complete. When I looked at Comrade Thommy and gestured that its taste was first class, his Ho Chi Minh beard smiled first!