March 13, 2020
The bubbles froth close to the edge of the tumbler, so precarious that it’s hard not to worry whether the liquid goodness is about to spill. Fortunately, it rarely does. Instead, you’re left with a beverage for mornings, afternoons, and evenings, a leisurely ritual and a way of life. It’s a cup of filter coffee, one that’s crucial yet commonplace to many who have lived or grown up in South India.
Not long ago, almost everyone thought that India only drank tea. That’s true in that an overwhelming majority of people drink tea in the country, even among the coffee-producing southern states. India is the nation of tea drinkers, the home of Darjeeling and Assam, the land of masala chai. But, at the same time, coffee in India has evolved from a European drink to a middle-class practice in Tamil Brahmin homes to cafe chains that gave young urban Indians a new kind of coffee culture to a third wave of small-batch and artisanal coffee makers.
India is the sixth-largest coffee-producing country in the world and inextricably tied to India’s coffee story is South Indian filter coffee. Called by many names depending on slight variations — Madras filter coffee, meter coffee, degree coffee, or simply its Tamilized name, kaapi — it’s a drink that’s beloved in several parts of India. Yet even as its counterpart, chai, has captured a devoted audience in the West, kaapi has remained largely unfamiliar and is less readily available to mainstream coffee drinkers outside South India.
“Every Tom, Dick, and Haresh can give you a cappuccino or a latte or an espresso or an Americano,” said Harish Bijoor, a brand consultant who’s worked with several coffee ventures in India. “But very few people can give you real south Indian filter coffee.”
The story of coffee’s arrival in India goes like this: In the 1600s, Baba Budan, a Muslim pilgrim, brought seven seeds into India, taped to his stomach or hidden in his beard (depending on which version you’ve heard) and began cultivating coffee in the South Indian state of Karnataka. Some even allege that the Portuguese took coffee plants from Goa to Rio de Janeiro in 1760. (The more popular provenance story says that Brazil’s coffee seeds came from French Guiana in 1727.)
The morning cup of coffee had initially been a European habit, but that started to change around the turn of the 20th century, when coffee started to replace the South Indian drink of kanji or neeragaram, a nutritious porridge-like mix made with leftover rice or millets. As Tamil historian AR Venkatachalapathy wrote in his essay, “In Those Days There Was No Coffee”: “The incursion of coffee into Tamil society was marked by a cultural anxiety which was matched only by the enthusiasm with which it was consumed.” Coffee grew in popularity, but critics believed coffee tread on conservative Tamil values, caused addiction, ruined appetites, threatened sleep patterns, and, perhaps worst of all, led women toward Western vices. But, ultimately, coffee won out and bound itself to middle-class Tamil home etiquette.
However, no one is quite sure about the origins of the Indian filter, from which the coffee gets its name. Its closest cousins can be found in Italy’s Neapolitan coffee or the Vietnamese coffee filter, both of which similarly rely on gravity (as opposed to percolation).