We are just three days into the New Year and I can claim with great pride and trembling hands that I have already checked off my first food resolution for 2018.
My pride stems from having finally learned the art of brewing South Indian filter coffee after only two years of committing to do so. My trembling hands are a repercussion of having accelerated my study of this drink by ingesting six cups of ‘filter kaapi’ all in one day. This excludes my two routine cups of wake-up chai and breakfast coffee.
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To be clear, I do not advise on replicating this ambitiously foolish course of study. I have distilled my Concorde kaapi journey so that you can enjoy the more leisurely gondola version of it over a sensible stretch of time. You only have the whole of 2018 left to get wiser about filter coffee.
Coffee history is steeped with interesting tales. Coffee beans were said to have been smuggled from Yemen into India by a 16th century Sufi saint called Baba Budan. The ‘masala’ in this story is that Baba Budan brought no more than seven raw beans into Karnataka, thankfully wrapped around his stomach because a simple bag over the shoulder does not a bedtime story make.
The best starting point for filter coffee study is in a household that brews the drink. If you do not have a friend from South India who makes filter coffee, it might be time to add another resolution to your 2018 list. Or simply steal someone else’s friends, which is precisely what I did when I tapped into my sister’s well-caffeinated network of South Indian kaapi gurus. Nithya Raman is originally from Chennai, the city she claims is ‘the birthplace of filter coffee’.
Her mother personally oversees and packs a custom blend of coffee with 45 per cent Peaberry, 45 per cent Plantation A Arabica and 10 per cent chicory.
Peaberry is a rare version of a coffee bean where the berry unpredictably yields only one, rather than two beans. Plantation A is the highest grade of washed Arabica beans in India. When I stuck my nose into Nithya’s coffee jar in the Greens, nearly 3,000 kilometres away from Chennai, I inhaled damp soil on a misty morning, train rides through India, jute bags of spices and bittersweet chocolate.
But why is roasted and ground chicory root added to the blend? It is fortuitous that another of my sister’s friends is the founder of The Indian Bean, an online speciality coffee retailer in India. Kunal Ross explains that when coffee production dropped during the Second World War, chicory was introduced as a substitute. I procured chicory powder from the Organic Foods store on Shaikh Zayed road and stirred two heaped tablespoons into water and milk for an extremely bitter drink with the faintest murmur of malt and caramel in the background. I doubt coffee lovers would approve. I have repeatedly heard that adding chicory boosts the ‘buzz’ of the coffee even though it has no caffeine. It seems the root is highly absorbent and slows the movement of water through the grounds, which in turn prolongs the brewing duration and increases the strength of the coffee.
South India has its own specialized gadgetry for filter coffee. The beverage is always served in a steel tumbler that squats in a lipped saucer-like ‘dabara’ – the coffee simply does not taste the same in a regular teacup or God forbid, in a takeaway paper cup. The drink is an equal blend of a concentrated coffee ‘decoction’ and boiling milk, with most restaurants in the city adding an overly zealous amount of sugar into the mix.
The brewing filter consists of two chambers, a top perforated one that holds finely ground coffee and a lower chamber which collects the decoction or concentrated coffee extract. The ground coffee is first tamped down with a mushroom-like metallic tool so that boiling water percolates gradually through the compacted coffee for a strong extraction. People often leave their coffee to start percolating as soon as they wake up or even overnight, so that the slow drip is complete by breakfast time.
My favourite part of the experience is the theatrics of repeatedly pouring scalding hot coffee from the steel tumbler to the dabara, and then back again. It helps to mix the decoction with the milk, cool the coffee and froth the milky brew. Restaurants in America might have you sign a liability waiver before attempting such daredevil piping hot mixology in steel utensils no less, but this is a routine fact of life for many a groggy South Indian first thing in the morning.
The best place to practice your kaapi juggling skills is Karama. The restaurants from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka usually have filter kaapi as a de-facto menu item. Saravana Bhavaan poured a cup with the strongest jolt, while Aryaas and Venus were relatively milder and milkier in comparison.
Keralite restaurants may not always serve this brew, a lesson learned at Calicut Paragon where the server glared back at me as though I were from Planet Punjab. Anjappar Chettinad might have started roasting their coffee from scratch, because fifteen minutes later, I still had no kaapi. I barely tasted the coffee from Aapa Kadai because they wrongly assumed I would tolerate a takeaway paper cup and then all hope was lost.
Sangeetha is another venerable kaapi veteran, though my fluttering heart would not tolerate a seventh cup that day. Most of the restaurants are using the Narasus brand of coffee which is available at Tamil Sandhai, the Tamil speciality supermarket in Karama which also sold me my Dh12 filter contraption that morning.
But as an attempt to salvage my jittery over-caffeinated situation, I promise to refrain from making a cup until February.