Picture this: you’re driving the down the serene Swedish countryside. A small signboard with the insignia of a copper kettle grabs your attention. Intrigued, you decide to stop. From a distance, all you can see is a hut, surrounded by tall chestnut trees. A cobbled pathway leads to an enclosure: chequered tablecloths spread on wooden tables in a green field, open to the forget-me-not blue skies of southern Sweden.
“Sva vi fika?” my friend had asked me a few hours earlier. It was my first time in Sweden.
“Fika?” I asked curiously.
And we drove off into the countryside to “fika”.
In Swedish culture, fika can be roughly translated to a “coffee break.” But it hardly does justice to the concept, because for the Swedes, fika is a way of life: it’s a chance to catch up with old friends, or a means to get to know someone new. Over, of course, a steaming cup of coffee (and sometimes tea). Accompaniments like Swedish pastries (called fikabröd or fikabread) are usually a part of fika. So famous is fika that it is worked into most employee contracts in Sweden (they say the best ideas come from a fika!). A social institution, fika broke across all class barriers. If an aristocratic king could take a break over a fika, so could a tired peasant. In a romantic cafe called Flickorna Lundgrens, located in an old fishing village in South Sweden, it wasn’t uncommon to find the former King Gustav VI Adolf fika-ing away, eating his favourite “Vanilla Heart” pastry.
I recounted my Swedish fika experience to a friend at a cafe in a resort in Kerala. Zephyr, stood by the edge of the pool at Alleppey’s Vasundhara Sarovar Premiere, tree-lined, and lush. The word “Zephyr” refers to a soft gentle breeze. We sunk into large cane sofas with plump cushions and put our feet up, pouring over the menu, filled with tidbits of information about tea drinking cultures across the world. “Fika,” a section read, “is a social institution in Sweden. It means having a coffee break with one’s colleagues, friends, and family.” I thought of our fast-paced lives, and how a little indulgence can go a long day in turning a bad day around.
As I leafed through the menu (after ordering a large cappuccino for myself), I realised the social importance of tea and coffee in cultures around the world. A coffee break isn’t just about drinking a hot beverage, or eating a pastry. It’s about slowing down, pausing, and taking a break from our routines — something we sorely need to help keep us going. Many cultures around the world have traditionally incorporated this concept. While it differs from one region to another, the crux is the same: to relax.
For example, in a traditional Viennese cafe, I learned, no one can throw you out — it’s quite alright to hang around for hours at a stretch, reading or working, sipping on your cuppa, or not. In Iran, on the other hand, you don’t get to quite sip your tea: in chaikhanes, the guests pour the tea into a saucer, and drink straight out of it, but not before popping a lump of sugar into their mouth. Tea houses and cafes have different rules across the world with Russians drinking by a “samovar”, and Moroccan men preparing fresh mint tea in colourful teapots.
In India, chai is an integral part of life — a permanent unifying trend found in every part of the subcontinent: from the chayakadas (http://blog.vasundhararesorts.in/?p=20) in the Kerala countryside to temporary shacks outside corporate offices in the megacities of Mumbai and Delhi to evenings in Bengal, where people love their adda sessions with a cup of cha. Whether drunk in a star-spangled paper cup or an earthen tumbler, it’s undeniable what the drink has done to the world, unifying it, one cup at a time.
fika: a Swedish concept which roughly translates to coffee break.
chaikhanes: Iranian tea/coffee rooms.
samovar: a highly decorated tea urn used in Russia.
chayakada: local teashops found in Kerala.