Coffee was a big deal in my family, especially in my mother’s family. They moved to Madras from Thanjavur in the fifties and brought with them a passion for coffee along with a propensity for intellectual pursuits, politics, lengthy discussions on philosophy as well as all manner of public affairs—these were mostly habits acquired from my grandfather who was deeply involved in the freedom movement and in Gandhian politics. When he moved his family to Madras they also brought with them coffee-making skills that visitors to their home felt were unmatched. I remember sentiments like ‘Coffeekku vazhi unda?’ which translates to ‘Is there a pathway to coffee?’ floating around the house as if the beverage were the path to enlightenment. It seemed to me, as a child visiting my grandparents, that there were always tumblers of strong, delicious coffee available at all times of the day; sweet enough for a child sometimes, and at other times strongly brewed and dark like some sinister drink that would at once bestow special powers on the drinker. My mother, a coffee aficionado herself, feared that her children would also succumb to coffee’s allure, so while we were allowed to inhale the aroma, we were not permitted to drink the litres of coffee that were brewed each day.
At four o’clock the milkman or paalkaran would appear at my grandfather’s gate with his doleful looking cow and would call out to the household to witness the milking and transfer of the milk from the cow’s udders into the container—which had to be examined to ensure that there was no water already in it to dilute it. This was cow’s milk, but he also sold buffalo’s milk and my grandmother was vague about which creature’s milk actually went into the coffee. Of course there were the inevitable heated discussions between my uncles and grandfather about which milk worked best (buffalo’s milk was the right answer, impossible to get in the city nowadays) but I really doubt whether they had a choice in the matter, because the making of the coffee was the preserve of my serene and gentle grandmother who was as tough as steel on things that mattered to her. When we were old enough (my mother ruled that we had to be twelve years old at least before we were allowed our first cup of coffee and it was of course restricted to one cup a day for a while), we took great glee in actually handling the customary tumbler and dabara (a wide saucer with high sides) from which the coffee was drunk because it felt like a very grown-up thing to do. Our greatest delight was to raise our tumblers high and pour the hot liquid into the dabara from as great a height as we could manage in order to cool it sufficiently so it could be drunk. This movement up and down, transferring the coffee from dabara to tumbler and back would also enhance the frothiness of the drink. There was some competition among the cousins who gathered on weekends at our grandparents’ place as to who could pour from the greatest height without spilling any of it. Inevitably, there were accidents, and grownup reactions to these ranged from patient tolerance (and even a little admiration perhaps for a child acquiring a new and useful skill) to irritation at having to clean up the mess. Another intriguing challenge had to do with drinking coffee from a silver tumbler which was shaped like a tapered beaker. You had to pour the hot beverage directly into your mouth without your lips touching the rim. I never quite got the point of drinking coffee this way because the metal tumbler (usually made of silver or sometimes of stainless steel) would be hot to the touch which would in itself be uncomfortable; add to that, the not very happy experience of pouring boiling coffee down your throat, and it wasn’t something that made much sense to me. A.R. Venkatachalapathy, in his essay on coffee, has drawn an observation from the well-known Tamil writer A.K. Chettiar who says that ‘the widespread use of metal tumblers with rims, unlike the rimless North Indian ones is a Tamil (Brahmin) invention, enabling the drinking of coffee without sipping the tumbler, it facilitated the balancing of hospitality and avoiding ritual pollution.’ Of course one was not aware of these sociological implications as a child. What existed was just the thrill of the operation with a beverage that seemed to have magical powers.
Coffee was frequently a topic of discussion in my mother’s family. This ranged from the variety of theories and lore about its origins and its international appeal down to discussing the best blend of coffee beans for that perfect mix. Such conversations would not actually happen while the coffee was being drunk, as usually there were some reverential moments of silence when the coffee appeared. But after that initial moment of communion with the god of coffee, I remember many memorable conversations that revolved around the beverage.
My mother’s early years of marriage in a joint family did not give her the luxury of importing the secret of her own family’s mastery of coffee into her new domain, and it was only later on, when she ran her own household, that she gave me her special coffee powder formula, variations of which I believe are prevalent in many households in Chennai today. Robusta beans or Plantation A combined with Peaberry beans, freshly ground and mixed to the formula of 1:3, was what she prescribed. Plantation A was more frequently used in the mix as Robusta was not always available. Robusta (or its substitute Plantation A) gave the decoction its body. Peaberry gave the best flavour, my mother said. Robusta A and Peaberry Special was however the ideal combination, in her opinion. A dash of chicory, which gave coffee its strong flavour, according to her, was also an ingredient in some coffees (especially in readymade powders), but the Peaberry-Plantation A was ‘our house formula’. I carried on the tradition and do believe that we produce decent enough coffee in our home.
Ever since its first appearance when it began to replace neeragaram (kanji or gruel made from fermented rice water from a previous meal, with added spices) the city has been captivated by coffee. Although Venkatachalapathy speaks of ‘an initial cultural’ anxiety when coffee first appeared, ‘matched only by the enthusiasm by which it was consumed’, this sense of ambivalence seems to have vanished quickly. In its subsequent spread through the city, methods of making coffee have grown in multiple ways. However, the most traditional Chennai coffee filter is a unique metal contraption, and while fairly simple in construction, demands a particular skill in the way in which it is used. This stainless steel coffee filter is in two parts of almost equal halves. The bottom of the top container is perforated and the powder is measured into this top half. There is also a pressing disc with a stem that holds down (but sometimes shakes, so has to be carefully handled) the coffee powder. When boiling water is poured into the top container, one must ensure that the stem does not shake or tip over but is stable, and then the lid is carefully placed on top to keep in the aroma while the liquid decoction slowly drips into the bottom container. Once the coffee decoction drips down to the bottom container fully, it is likely to be strong, dark and full-bodied (unlike the much more dilute decoction that emerges from coffee makers) and thought to have the best flavour. In most households, boiling water is poured a second time on the same powder, in order to extract a more dilute blend of the decoction. This is usually meant for children or for others who are more fragile in the pecking order of consumption. Hot frothy milk and sugar are added to the decoction and, as mentioned earlier, through dexterous arm movements that involve pouring the coffee from a particular height between the tumbler and dabara (almost as if one were measuring yardage) the coffee is cooled to the desired amount. Another name for this pure filter coffee is ‘metre’ coffee, probably derived from the distance between the dabara and the tumbler when the coffee is being cooled.
In many homes in Chennai the first thing they will ask you when you visit is: ‘Would you like a cup of coffee?’ If you demur, you will hear one or all of the following: ‘Just half a tumbler at least?’ or ‘We have a secret formula’ or ‘Do try our special coffee’ and many such adumbrations that are supposed to tempt you to immediately agree to try that special coffee. It is often considered inhospitable if you are not plied with coffee the moment you enter a Chennai house. Tea, on the other hand, while growing in popularity, including the newer formulations like peppermint, camomile and green tea, somehow does not seem to be able to dislodge coffee as the all-time favourite drink in Chennai. The master novelist R. K. Narayan, who lived for many years in the city, was a great votary of the beverage. He wrote: ‘[Coffee] is not a habit; it is a stabilizing force in human existence achieved through a long evolutionary process.’ In an essay, charmingly titled ‘Coffee Worries’ which appeared in 1974, he points out that ‘For a South Indian, of all worries the least tolerable is coffee worry…[which] may be defined as all unhappy speculation around the subject of coffee as a habit, its supplies, its price, its quality, its morality, its ethics, economics and so on’. Narayan suggests that the coffee drinker whose habit is criticized will probably view it ‘as an attack on his liberty of thought and action’. He emphasizes that ‘all the moralizing against coffee has misfired in this part of the country. “Coffee is a deadly poison, you are gradually destroying your system with it, etc.,” declares some purist. He may lecture from a public platform or on a street corner but people will listen to him only with a pitying tolerance, with an air of saying, “Poor fellow, you don’t know what you are talking about, you don’t know what you are missing. You will still live and learn”. In course of time this prophecy is fulfilled’, says Narayan. ‘Many a man who has come to scoff has remained to pray. Coffee has many conquests: saints, philosophers, thinkers and artists who can never leave the bed unless they learn that coffee is ready, but not the least of its conquests is among those who came to wage a war on it.’
The writer Asokamitran explained to me that ‘degree coffee’ probably meant a particularly high quality of milk that was used in Kumbakonam and thereafter popularized in Chennai. Another explanation is that ‘chicory’ came to be pronounced as ‘degree’ and yet another elucidation of the term is that degree coffee usually stands for the undiluted, strong-bodied decoction that is first filtered. While traditional coffee making is said to be somewhat on the decline given the increasing pace of life in Chennai, a range of people that I enquired with indicated that they still made filter coffee regularly; ‘instant’ coffee was reserved for unexpected guests or when there were other compelling reasons for not decocting proper coffee.
For Chennai’s coffee enthusiasts, there is now an immense amount of choice as lattes, cappuccinos, espressos and macchiatos brewed by a variety of chains battle it out for primacy with purveyors of the traditional filter coffee. For now, at any rate, the overwhelming majority of the city’s residents that I spoke to favour the traditional brew. And the search for that perfectly brewed cup of coffee remains one of the city’s obsessions. As a true Chennai vasi, I too am always on the trail of that perfect cup and although I cannot always find it, I can recognize it when I taste it.
For in-depth, objective and more importantly balanced journalism, Click here to subscribe to Outlook Magazine