How does Raj Sharma take his coffee?
My Morning Cup features the coffee rituals that most of us have. People from all walks of life — from US senators to ballplayers, subway drivers to college professors — have submitted entries that will run most days.
Here, we reached Raj Sharma, a managing director for the Merrill Lynch private banking and investment group in Boston, by phone.
Raj Sharma, 58
Describe your coffee routine. Where do you frequent, what do you like?
I've been drinking coffee since childhood. Growing up in India, we had a tradition, a way of making coffee, that I still continue. I've been in the United States for 35 years, but we still continue to do it this way. It's a little bit of a ritual every morning. This is basically called South Indian Filter Coffee. And the way they make it is slow and methodical. First you create the decoction by brewing finely ground coffee powder. We typically use Robusta beans with a touch of chicory. You fine grind it. Then you use a traditional Indian filter.
You load the upper cup with freshly ground coffee. And then add boiling water. It takes seven to eight minutes for it to drip down.
You get this decoction that is quite strong. You heat up milk, get it to a boil. The traditional way is on your gas stove. You do it in a back-and-forth motion, to try and get the foam. That is an important part to get the aeration process. By going back and forth, it aerates the coffee and creates a foam. It also mixes the sugar.
And what beans are you using for this?
Robusta beans are the best to use. But sometimes in the US you don't get the type you want. We usually do a blend from a place called Baltimore Coffee and Tea Company.
It's from Baltimore?
Yeah. It's a family-owned business, around for about 100 years. We take two to make a blend. The first is Indian Monsoon Turkish. The second is Tanzania Peaberry. You take that and you add a dose of chicory to it. That is the coffee powder.
So you guys are even coming up with your own blend of coffee. How did you find the right blend?
My wife, her brother lives in Baltimore. He's into this coffee too. So he said this mixing the Indian Monsoon with the Peaberry gives you the same result. She experimented with the chicory and the right doses. I give her full credit. I'm the consumer of coffee but she's really the master chef. And I don't interfere with the process.
This sounds like quite the process.
It is unbelievable. Years ago I wanted to start a coffee business, believe it or not. Nobody would give me a cent of capital. So I figured Merrill Lynch was a surer shot.
The making of the coffee hasn't changed in a couple hundred years. If you go to south India to homes, that's how they make the coffee. You try to keep it as pure as possible. It does take a bit of time, but coffee is a ritual. My wife is the purest. She wants to get it right every time with the right temperature and the right coffee.
How important is the chicory?
It removes the acidity from coffee. Sometimes I find the coffee at Starbucks or other places is acidic. You can only have so much of it. By adding chicory it removes some of the acidity. Without the chicory you don't get the taste of Indian coffee.
So what time is your first cup?
We're typically up by 5:30 or 6 in the morning. Our daughter, who is a senior in high school, has gotten indoctrinated, too.
Any simultaneous non-caffeinated stimulation? Reading the paper, or anything like that?
We have three newspapers: The Boston Globe, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal.
So where do you get these special filters you are using?
If you go to India it's literally five bucks. I've seen it online for one hundred bucks. It's five dollars in India. You can get it anywhere. What I did many years ago when I was thinking of this coffee business, I went to India and I bought 50 filters.
So you were really going to try and open a store? Doing this Indian coffee?
This is pre-Starbucks; this is 1989. I felt the general quality of coffee was pretty mediocre. You didn't have the café late or Starbucks. I identified the market niche but I didn't have the capital.
How many more cups the rest of the day?
I have a cup in the morning and a smaller cup in the car on the way to work, which is a good 45 minutes to an hour. Typically at 3 in the afternoon. I work in the financial district. By 3 you need a pick-me-up. I have this great barista in Starbucks. He fixes me a grande café latte. It's two shots of coffee made with skim milk. That's usually my around 3 or 3:30 in the afternoon ritual. I stop at about 3 cups. More than 3, then it's time for some wine at 5 o'clock.
Do you put anything in the coffee?
You don't need to use sugar. My wife likes brown sugar. I basically use some Stevia or some kind of substitute. But it doesn't have to be sweet. Even if you have two cups of that coffee it doesn't sort of make you tense. I think it's the beauty of the chicory. Without the chicory it's going to really pump you up quite a bit.
Iced or hot?
I've never gotten used to iced coffee. Always hot. The only thing cold I have is a Chardonnay. I love good wine. I enjoy it. Like anything else, I have it in moderation.
What's your stance on decaf?
You know, not exciting enough. It takes out the essence of the coffee. So I'm not a big fan of decaf.
When and why did you start drinking coffee?
It was a tradition in my family growing up in India. Every morning my mom would make this little filter coffee. We were kids. She would not put that much of the decoction. It would mostly be hot milk with a little decoction. As you get older you want more. It was a ritual in the house. It was in the '60s, and coffee "to go" did not quite exist. It's a ritual in south India in particular. North India tends to be more tea drinking. But south is more coffee.
Describe the most memorable cup of coffee you've ever had.
The most memorable I had was a few months back when I was in Pondicherry, India. I was driving. It was a roadside coffee stall. The sign said Degree Coffee. Degree is a way of mixing the coffee. If you mix it at a 90-degree angle, it's incredible. You've got to see it. You have no drops on the floor. This was literally for like 30 cents on the street corner. I thought the coffee was out of this world. That was the last memorable coffee I had.