As I walked through security to take an early morning flight to Hyderabad, I felt the need for a coffee to kick start the day. At Starbucks I saw a ‘Freshly brewed coffee” on the menu and when I asked the young man in charge, if it was like South Indian coffee he said “No mam, it is not that one (showing the way this coffee is mixed by repeated trasfer between glass and tumbler) – but it is made in a filter”. It came black with milk on the side and I rejected the milk and sugar and really enjoyed the sharp, bitter flavor.
A short while later I boarded the Jet Airways flight, and being a full service airline (something that I often forget exist) breakfast was served, followed by the tea/coffee service. Although I had always found the airline tea/coffee insipid, I opted for the coffee. Again without milk or sugar, it was not bad at all with a distinct flavor, totally different form the one I had had a couple of hours earlier – milder, lesser bitter and mellow.
And finally when I got to the meeting at the other end in Hyderabad, I again opted for the coffee. As I expected, I got the filter coffee, which came ready made with milk and all the froth that is the result, not of a machine but the repeated transfer between glass and tumbler (or should be!) that the Starbucks attendant was referring to!!
In these last 6 months, since I gave up milk, (that is another story) I feel I have wasted a life time and am finally tasting coffee and tea. And as I sipped the filter coffee 2-3 times that day, I got pondering on my experience with the brew.
Filter coffee is a ritual in TamBram houses and during my childhood, ours was no exception. The filter itself, in peetal (brass) initially, and then in that great gift to the Indian housewife stainless steel, was an essential part of the kitchen. Although I am sure coffee powder and even roasted beans were available – those just did not do and the raw beans were what came from the market. I distinctly remember the aroma that hung around the house on the days my mother roasted the beans. These were stored in air tight containers and ground by hand in small batches.
Each kitchen had filters of varying sizes – to be used according to the number of cups to be made, as the decoction had to be fresh.
This was and is, done by packing the perforated upper vessel with coffee powder (amount standardized by each housewife I am sure!) and boiling water poured over it followed by the umbrella like contraption to press down the powder. The decoction was collected from the lower vessel and ideally mixed with equal volume of freshly boiled full cream milk. (Actually, decoction is defined as a method of extraction by boiling of dissolved chemicals, as is done in the preparation of many Ayurveda medicines; have never understood how the filtered coffee itself came to be called decoction) The mixture was transferred between the tumbler (glass) and the davara (the base vessel) and served immediately.
As children, there was no chance that you ever got a cup, and a sip from the elders, was a rare luxury. My first exposure to coffee was thanks to India coffee house in my college days – and it was the bench mark for many years. In the early years after marriage, ICH continued to be the coffee point, and chai was the staple at home.
During my 2 year post-doc stint in US in the late 70s, long before the Starbucks revolution, I got to see the America fixation with coffee. The lab had this large brew pot, as did every work place with smaller versions at homes, and it was the duty of the first person who got into work to make the coffee. Since flexi-time was already in practice, the technical staff often got into the lab by 7am (and often as early as 6 in summer) and by the time we post-docs staggered in at a late 8 am, all the corridors were full of the aroma of coffee. Each group had their favorite brew I am sure, but it was always a variation within the then popular brand of Maxwell – the only variation was a de-caff option, which was still new then. Tea was a definite no-go, tea bags had not arrived and anyway, whoever drank that stupid British drink!! For everyone who came into work, the first stop was the coffee station and a generous amount was poured into a large mug and the mug was endlessly re-filled through the day, mostly consumed sans milk or sugar. I had grown in the 11 o’clock department tea club culture, where some ‘menial’ was assigned the task of making tea – and coffee was Nescafe stirred into the milky water!! The transition was challenging, and while I loved the smell, the coffee itself was pretty bad. A creamer option was available for people like me, and eventually I managed to get used to it – but never grew to like it.
The coffee ritual continued in my parent’s house, I think till my father was alive. At some point in Bangalore my mother even had a couple of coffee bushes in her garden which gave her a fair supply of beans. And it was on those visits to their house through the 80’s that, I for the first time learnt to drink and enjoy my mother’s filter coffee. I acquired the paraphernalia – and in the Bombay years Matunga provided a good source of the coffee powder, allowing us to enjoy home made coffee. The corner South Indian Coffee House in Matunga Market became the new benchmark!
There were challenge when we moved to Lucknow, as ICH as a brand had disappeared. Lucknow had no Madras Cafes and no local source for coffee powder. I had to resort to importing the powder through the occasional visits to Chennai/Mumbai. In the early 1990s, after my father passed away my mother shifted to a flat in Chennai, and abandoned the roasting and grinding process. But there were plenty of shops that allowed you to buy the beans and they ground it for you right there. My supply from Chennai has been maintained over all these years, and even now, after my mother’s move to Gurgaon I have a supply chain through my brother.
Over the last decade, there has been a make over – the coffee shop has become ubiquitous and the hip place to hang out. Initially Cafe Cafe Day and Barista, and then Costa and now Starbucks have finally made coffee a widely accepted beverage. They are not cheap, but for the prize you can have Cappuccino, Latte and all the other global varieties. I too, fell into this trend, grabbing a cappuccino here and there, grudging the price and not being quiet sure of my response to it. Of course, the filter ruled at home, occasionally replaced by the electric drip coffee maker.
Although I have not taken sugar with tea or coffee for many years, it was when I gave up milk, that I had the Aaah moment. I had a packet of a premium European brand which had been gifted to me and while I had not appreciated its ‘premiumness’ with milk, suddenly I could feel that extra flavor!! And tentatively as I try out the options at the coffee shops, I realize that all these years it has been the milk, made bitter by the added coffee, that I have been tasting!! The common Indian Arabica/Robusta made with the filter is not a good ‘black’ option I have learnt. So, after many decades of drinking ‘coffee’, it is only now that I am starting a real love affair with coffee.