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Filter Kaapi-
South India's Signature Drink

by Sudha Chandrasekaran

Known by several names depending on slight variations —Degree coffee, Madras filter coffee or simply kaapi, its Tamil version, — it’s a drink that’s loved in several parts of India. We see the bubbles foaming close to the brink of the container-the tumbler, so dangerously close to spilling, that it’s difficult not to feel anxious whether the liquid will spill over! Fortunately, it rarely does.  Alternately, you enjoy a beverage which can be devoured at any time of the day - be it morning, afternoon, or evening- a leisurely ritual and a way of life.  This cup of filter kaapi is one that is vital yet customary to several of those who have been brought up in South India, and is rather a practice in Tamil Brahmin (Tambrahm) middle-class home.

On my ninth birthday, I tagged along with my Ammama to Radha Akka’s engagement. Radha Akka’s family were our neighbours and very good friends for the past 10 odd years. About 75 of us from our neighbourhood sat on door mats and eagerly awaited the arrival of Akka’s arrival who we expected would appear all dressed up as a radiant bride-to-be. Our waiting seemed to be eternal, as I was nearly dozing away, when someone gently tapped my shoulders. Unable to open my eyes fully, through my half-opened eyes I managed to see Lakshmi stretching out a tray towards me holding a plate full of dainty tumblers, all of steel metal, and three-fourth-filled with freshly brewed filter coffee. I was hungry and sleepy and I cautiously took a tumbler for fear of spilling it, even as I heard Ammamma say aloud “Oh, my granddaughter is not a great fan of coffee”. I chose to brush aside her words and took my first sip of that beverage with which I instantly fell in love. The stimulating taste of filter coffee with that extra bit of sugar –hmmmmm... The next incident about this intoxicating drink that comes to my mind was seven years after my first taste of coffee. My friends and I, all ninth graders, were waiting for the grand entry of our history teacher – Mr. Raghuram. He would walk into our classroom straight from the cafeteria after a cup of coffee.  Always a first bencher, the fastidious and proper me, got steeped in the stench of coffee as the attendance was taken. So, Mr. Raghuram unwittingly killed both, my love for history and coffee as well. Well, at that time, hardly did I realise life’s peculiar humour!

This funny love/hate relationship with kaapi continued till I entered Plus 1. I was never sure of my love for this stimulating drink. Sometimes, it was too hot, sometimes a bit bitter and sometimes over sweet. So I gradually took to drinking the ‘energy booster’ Horlicks!  However, Physics and Maths changed my idea about coffee. I had to burn the midnight oil to understand and digest the Principles, Formulae etc. All that I needed was caffeine to keep me awake and it was then that I started the coffee drinking ritual before opening my text books, which soon turned out to be a necessity. Finally this ritual pulled me in regularly- 6 am began with coffee, then there was 3 pm coffee, 5.30 pm coffee and 7 pm coffee and definitely before exams it was 10 pm coffee.

On a holiday, as I lifted the tumbler and took it near my lips and took the first sip, a surge of lucid memories rush to my mind. A favourite ceremony of mine would be to accompany dad to get freshly ground from Leo Coffee which was a combination of Peaberry and Arabica coffee seeds, roasted and ground together in a definite proportion. This powder then was kept in an airtight ancient coffee tin which Amma had inherited from her mother. Every passing day, I would get the feel of rich aroma of thick coffee as the extremely hot water bubbled over the coffee powder placed in the tiered coffee filter.  I would at times hear the sprinting footsteps of Amma on hearing the sound of milk boiling and spilling over, to turn off the gas. The modish way of hot milk being mixed with the decoction and little sugar was nothing short of heavenly bliss.

My love relationship with this wonderful beverage continued to grow stronger with the passage of time. If you’re a lover of coffee, you know that drinking coffee is a complex and subtle experience consisting of the much desired comforting warmth, the rich aroma, and the relaxing ritual of sipping a fresh cup of filter kaapi. The making of filter coffee is a simple ceremony by itself. It’s often served in a stainless tumbler along with a flat squat cup known as the davaraa. About two-thirds of the tumbler is filled with milk and the remaining with fresh filter decoction. Required sugar is added and the coffee is poured from tumbler to davara with a ‘swish’, thus creating a final foamy top tempting people to go ahead and taste it....

Of late, we are witnessing a rise in coffee culture in not only India but also around the world. A greater appreciation for the traditional Indian filter is seen and it is more than just an old- fashioned utensil that several South Indians have seen in their grandparents’ kitchen while they were growing up. Coffee aficionados are more than willing to wait patiently for the ultimate cuppa of brewed filter coffee.

Hey, listen, do you belong to the filter kaapi clan or do you prefer ‘instant coffee’?  But, according to me, if there is ever a rite that triggers your adrenalin rush and endorphins simultaneously, it is a cup of filter kaapi! Soon after, within a few seconds following your first sip, you are ready to challenge the world. I must mention here that  I had and still have the power to manipulate my moods with this enticing drink, so much so that  my folks can easily guess my  ‘pre and post’ coffee moments. The grumpy and crabby mood would disappear and get transformed into an affable and all’s well attitude, following that one cuppa of filter coffee. Back then I was the only coffee drinker at home and this invited advice from my entire family. “Your appetite will gradually reduce and you will start feeling weak,” advised my mother. Soon, my younger sister would continue,” Drink lots of water when you drink a cup of coffee as it is not good for your health.”  

“Now, Akka, it has been proved that it leads to insomnia” pitched in my younger brother. Whatever be the side effects of caffeine in your blood, it appeared to be nothing compared to the joys of the bottled effervescence.

On entering a coffee shop, as I raised the tumbler, and took in the distinct smell, poured the cuppa coffee into the ‘davara’, and slowly cooled it, nostalgia, once again enveloped me. It happened days after demonetisation in 2016, and I was in one of the leading ground coffee outlets in Chennai.  The rich enticing smell of coffee drifted in the air. I walked into the outlet with a mended Rs.2000 note, which was not wanted by anyone. On seeing the note, the shop keeper was not keen on doing business with me. 

“Please listen to me. It is quite probable that you will be able to accept this Rs.2000 note when you start getting some more customers, which I am sure you will in a few minutes from now,” said I, but the man did not seem to take any cognizance of my words. The busy ‘Anna’ was packing freshly ground coffee powder for those who walked in after me and did not even once raise his head to look at me. I grew a bit impatient and raised my voice which I usually do not do in public, to get my coffee powder. With a bit of grumbling and mumbling he finally acceded to my request. On reaching home, I had a strong cup of filter coffee to ward away the tension that I had experienced at the shop!  Soon I had to move to Hyderabad as my work carried me there. You realise your love for something only after it is gone. My love affair with filter coffee grew in leaps and bounds after going to Hyderabad. Previously filter coffee was the norm at home in Chennai. But in this city of Irani chai, I had to desperately hunt for filter coffee. It is not a crime to seek instant regalement and being helpless, and so I tried instant coffee. But after a few sips wish I had not attempted it. This was not the coffee I wanted!

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