South Indian filter coffee defined
The South Indian filter coffee is a speciality coffee drink made in parts of South India. It’s made by adding coffee decoction extracted from a mixture of coffee blends (such as Plantation A and Peaberry with added chicory for reducing bitterness) with boiled milk and sugar. This mixture is then poured vigorously from a tumbler into a davarah and back again into the tumbler. This process creates a froth, cools down the coffee just enough to sip, and dissolve the sugar evenly.
The decoction for South Indian filter coffee is extracted from a traditional Indian coffee filter. The ground coffee powder is first pressed into the upper compartment of the coffee filter with a perforated bottom and pressed compactly. Piping hot water is gently poured on top of the pressed coffee power. The hot water percolates through the compacted coffee powder and the decoction
Here is a video from Saffron Trails that explains how the authentic South Indian filter coffee is made.
The best places to find authentic south Indian filter coffee are in Chennai the home of Madras Coffee or in Kumbakonam, the home of Kumbakonam degree coffee. You will also find good South Indian filter coffee in Bangalore and any other city in India with a South Indian population!
The south Indian filter coffee is not just a drink!
If you are wondering what’s the fuss about the south Indian filter coffee, you will be surprised at the lengths people go to make sure they have a great cup of filter coffee first thing in the morning.
Art, South Indian filter coffee and love
One of our readers shared his story about his obsession with filter coffee and how it goes beyond being just a drink in the morning.
Our man happens to be a night owl. He gets up no earlier than 8 am in the morning. And when he gets up, he needs his dose of authentic Indian filter coffee before anything else can happen.
His mother doesn’t really like the idea that his son is a night owl. However, like any other south Indian mother she makes sure there her son gets the best south Indian filter coffee on the planet no matter when he decides to wake up,
Considering the fact that her day starts much earlier, and she may be busy with other things, she keeps the milk, freshly brewed coffee decoction and sugar ready for her son. That’s not all, she also leaves behind plenty of instructions on the kitchen counter to make sure her son doesn’t accidentally use the second decoction!
Just goes to show that the ritual of drinking coffee in the morning is a serious affair and most South Indian mothers go to great lengths to make sure her son or daughter get a proper dose of south Indian filter coffee!
The degree of filter coffee obsession
Tyagarajan Sundaresan is a writer. His Medium blog post titled “The South Indian Filter Coffee Obsession Chart” nails the various chronic conditions that define a filter coffee lover! It’s hilarious and still manages to shed light on the deep love and obsession coffee drinkers in South India seem to possess. You can read his blog post here.
The history of filter coffee in South India
Until the end of the 19th century, the practice of drinking coffee or tea was absent in India.
The book titled “In Those days There Was No Coffee – Writings In Cultural History“ by AR Venkatachalapathy from the Madras Institute of Development Studies, has interesting insights about the proliferation of coffee drinking habits in South India, especially in Tamil Nadu.
Here are some extracts from this book.
Coffee was closely tied to colonialism. According to Anthony Giddens, a British Sociologist, “Virtually all the coffee we drink in the western countries comes from areas that were colonised by the Europeans.”
It is thought that coffee was grown in the Mysore region in the 18th century and was primarily meant for Europe. Ayothidas Pandithar, a radical Dalit intellectual referred to coffee as the drink of the Europeans!
The word coolie in the Tamil language is thought of have originated from Tamil workers who worked in coffee plantations for the British empire.
In early 20th century, the Tanjore Gazetteer observed, “Among the higher classes, coffee in the morning is taken. Of recent years, however, a tendency has become noticeable among Shudras, even of the poorer classes, towards the use of coffee in the early morning in preference to cold rice.”
The rapid adoption of coffee as the preferred beverage among Tamilians brought to fore people who took it upon themselves to banish the drink! One of them even proclaimed “Filter coffee is more addictive than even beer and arrack!”
By the time India was inching closer to independence from the British, coffee had taken the centre stage among Tamilians. R.K Narayan had observed “A middle-class South Indian cannot feel that he has acquitted himself unless he is able to ask any visitor who may drop in, ‘Will you have coffee?’”
Between the 1920s all the way to 1950s, there was an explosive growth in “Coffee Hotels”. These were small restaurants, typically run by Tamil Brahmins, that served good South Indian filter coffee and tiffin.
Subsequently, old coffee brands like Narasus and Leo coffee continues to survive and thrive in the midst of modern coffee chains such as Coffee Day and Starbucks trying to change the way coffee is consumed in India.
Best places for tasting the South Indian filter coffee
If you are new to South Indian filter coffee, we picked out a bunch of places in Chennai and Bangalore that serve authentic South Indian filter coffee. “Authentic” means, a proper choice if coffee bean powder, undiluted milk (preferably cow’s milk which may not be available even in the places we have listed below), and just the right amount of sugar so that it just masks the bitterness and not overwhelm the taste bud with sweetness.
Here is our list of places to get your cup of steaming hot South Indian filter coffee.
1. Saravana Bhavan Restaurant
In the world of south Indian vegetarian food, Saravana Bhavan has carved a name for itself in the hearts of South Indians. Their filter coffee is alway consistent and their staff will oblige if you need more decoction! While we have listed their T Nagar location, Saravana Bhavan is everywhere and the coffee is always good in all their restaurants.
2. Karpagambal Mess
The 67-year-old “mess” in Mylapore, the cultural centre of Chennai, is a must visit place if you are hunting for authentic filter coffee and a range of tiffin items. You can read about their history here.
3. Sangeetha Restaurant
Sangeetha is a worthy competitor for Saravana Bhavan. They too have a big presence across the city and have now opened branches in the US as well. Their RA Puram branch is always a safe bet if you are in the mood for an authentic South Indiana filter coffee.
4. The New Woodlands Hotel
The Woodlands Hotel was started in 1938 and has stood the test of time by remaining the go-to place for authentic South Indian vegetarian fare. No restaurant in Chennai can hope to remain the bastion of traditional food if they cannot serve the highest quality filter coffee and Woodlands hasn’t disappointed on this front for 70+ years!
5. Kalmane Coffee
Bangalore competes with Chennai when it comes to the sheer number of options you have to get your fill of authentic South Indian filter coffee. Kalmane Coffee grows its own coffee beans and their plantations are over 130 years old! You will find their outlets in most malls in Bangalore as well as in Chennai.
6. Brahmin’s Coffee Bar
This is a hole in the wall cafe with no seating and yet you will have to probably jostle with the crowd outside to get your hands on their filter coffee and their delicious vegetarian tiffin items. Famous for its breakfast, the Brahmin Coffee Bar is an institution and a must visit for a foodie.Brahmin Coffee Bar is an institution and a must visit for a foodie.
7. Mavalli Tiffin Room (MTR)
MTR is the probably the ground zero of authentic South Indian vegetarian fare and coffee in Bangalore. They started as Brahmin Coffee House way back in 1924 and the business was renamed as MTR in 1951.
8. Hatti Kaapi
This is one place where the star attraction is just the coffee (Like Kalmane Coffee). People who land at the Bangalore airport make it a point to taste a divine cup of South Indian filter coffee at Hatto Kaapi before leaving the airport. Don’t worry, they also have locations in the city.
Is filter coffee under threat from Starbucks?
The filter coffee craze is so strong in South India that people who migrate to other countries don’t give up on their quest to find coffee that tastes like the South Indian filter coffee!
Questions like What coffee taste the closest to South Indian Filter coffee? or What is the best filter coffee powder to use in the US? or How to make coffee decoction? tells us that no matter where people go and no matter how many Starbucks outlets are close by, South Indians will always crave for authentic filter coffee!
The likes of Starbucks and other international coffee chains as well as Indian clones are sprouting up in all major cities across India. Clearly, in terms of pricing and ambience, these international coffee chains are targeting the well-heeled, well-traveled customers They are also embracing local tastes and speciality brews.
For example, Starbucks in Chennai lists filter coffee on its menu! Be warned, you do end up paying over six times the amount you would probably pay for a filter coffee at Saravana Bhavan!
Local chains like Cafe Coffe Day are doing a better job by lowering their price points and the fact that they have a larger presence across all major cities and towns make them accessible as well.
As we see it, the entry of international chains provides greater choice for coffee obsessed Indians and they are not a “threat” to the coffee culture that is already thriving in South India. Case in point, Starbucks in now exporting coffee grown in the Coorg region of Karnataka all the way to the US!
Featured image credits: Charles Haynes on Flickr.
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