You can take the South Indian out of South India but you cannot separate him from his filter coffee or “kaapi” as it is popularly called. A piping hot tumbler of the aromatic filter coffee is a must for the day to really begin. Served with boiling milk and sugar, the smell of the coffee permeates the entire house in the morning.
Coffee is said to have come to India around the 17th century and has since become a staple of the South Indian. Known as degree coffee, many many theories abound for this name. Some say it is a distortion of the word chicory coffee which had morphed to tickery and then to degree coffee. Others say the first decoction which is called first degree resulted in the name degree coffee. Still other theories are there but a good coffee is called degree coffee.
The fresh decoction is added to boiling, frothing milk (not milk to coffee) and then cooled with a typical mixing of the coffee by transferring the coffee from one container to another, pulling it away almost a metre from the other container. Known as “meter coffee”, this is a common sight in the South India. Even at home this is the accepted way of cooling your coffee usually using a davara and tumbler though definitely not a meter long.
Check out this hilarious video of the Chennai Super Kings (the Chennai team of the Indian Premier League for cricket) taking up the ‘metre coffee challenge”.
The first decoction which is the strongest is used to make the coffee for the favoured few in the house. The strength of the decoction is an indicator of where you stand in the pecking order. If you are lower on the totem pole of a household you will definitely end up with second or even third decoction which is just repeated watering of the same coffee grounds.
Each family has its own preference in terms of the type and proportion of different types of coffee beans and the amount of chicory added. Chicory is the root of the chicory plant (belonging to the dandelion family) that was introduced in France when coffee was in short supply. It adds body and some flavour at a lower cost than pure coffee. The Britishers were responsible for introducing chicory to India and now it is very much a part of the South Indian coffee.
The Highways in South India are dotted with the “Kumbakonam Degree Coffee” kiosks where for ₹20 travellers can stop and have a small tumbler of piping hot coffee and proceed on their journey. They used to serve only coffee but have now added snacks like vadai and bajji which go very well with coffee.
Traditional stores specialising only in coffee abound the towns and cities in South India. In the more conservative parts of the city or town you will see shops with green beans of different varieties which would be roasted in the proportion you specify and ground to perfection when you place the order. Narasu’s Coffee which has been in existence since 1926 has loyal customers even today. Geeta Coffee is another landmark store in Mylapore, Chennai that has been in existence since 1984 and here you can see a roasting machine and a grinding machine. Coffee beans of different varieties are available and they roast and grind it fresh for you. The whole street smells of coffee.
In my grandmother’s home she used to have a small coffee roaster and a grinder for the family’s coffee needs. In an era when kitchen gadgets were at a minimum or non existent these were to be seen at most homes signifying the importance of coffee to South Indians. Coffee decoction is made fresh every morning and afternoon just before drinking coffee. My mother in law was a great coffee drinker and would drink it piping hot. So hot that she couldn’t handle the tumblers with her hands and would lift them with tongs and drink. I think filter coffee was one of the things she missed the most when she lived with us in Toronto.
Today, even though Coffee Day and Starbucks are seen dotting the cities and highways, the quintessential filter coffee still rules.