By guest author Achala Srivatsa
A WhatsApp conversation with a few close friends on coffee got me thinking about filter coffee. Legend has it that Baba Budan secretly brought back seven coffee seeds from Yemen to Chikmaglur (translates to “The Younger Daughter’s Town”). He planted it in what is now Baba Budan Giri (Baba Budan’s mountain) kicking off Chikmagalur’s journey of coffee planting… which spread to Coorg and other parts of India.
I’m not quite sure what we South Indians were drinking in the mornings before coffee hit us – perhaps “Kashaya” which is a decoction of spices. The British did try to convert us to tea. My mother remembers tea representatives going from house to house, explaining what tea was and preparing it in each house – early examples of in-home sampling and usage tests maybe – I suspect the Lipton Company may have been behind it
At any rate – this strong, black thick brew we called “kaafi” caught on. Early efforts at coffee making used the decanting method – or filtering through a thin muslin cloth which did not give uniformly good results. Some bright person decided that a filter would be a good thing and bingo – filter coffee was born.
Growing up, we would order freshly roasted and ground coffee from one of the thousands of Filter Coffee “Works” dotted across the city. Ours was “Union Coffee Works.” My Dad and I were the coffee buyers and I’d watch the coffee man swirl around the freshly roasted, darkly golden seeds in the roasting machine – the aroma of which would soak into my skin. Dad would ask for a few hot, fragrant beans and we’d both crunch the seeds (try them, they are wonderful. And thank you Starbucks for coating them in chocolate).
The texture of the powder was all important – just coarse enough to let the hot water soak in but not too coarse that it refuses to yield up its glorious flavor and definitely not too fine which would give you residue in the coffee. And absolutely no chicory – which gives an unpleasant bitterness though it does add body to the coffee. To my mind, it lacks the clean rich flavor of pure coffee.
To say that making filter coffee is a ritual is a cliché of course but it certainly has an element of the spiritual. My father, very old school in that he never really entered the kitchen, would make coffee quite often as he was the earliest bird in the family. He was passionate about how his coffee was to be made. Four or Five heaped spoons of the powder in a large steel filter. Hot, simmering water just off the boil, to be swirled gently into the filter in a circular motion – drenching every part of the powder and encouraging it to release that glorious flavor and aroma. Take a minute to breathe deeply of this fragrance, already your senses are beginning to wake, and the fragrance floats through the house and begins to wake the others.
Once poured, do not touch the filter – let it sit and work its magic – wait for the black, rich decoction to drip through the filter, slowly. The temptation to give it a quick tap will be high but resist this urge if you don’t want fine residue in your coffee. Once it’s dripped, half fill a steel cup, add fresh boiled milk and blend it by pouring it in back and forth into another steel cup – this process, experts assure me, open up and release the flavours – not unlike swirling a glass of wine. Why steel – well, another story for another day. But filter coffee just does not taste the same in a mug or a ceramic cup.
To sweeten or not to sweeten? Great writers have weighed in on this. I’m a follower of the RK Narayan school of thought. RK Narayan felt coffee should have just enough sugar to take the edge of bitterness off but not to make it sweet. We’ll leave it to you.
More than just a beverage… every sip of coffee is an emotional journey – opening up a window to the past which adds to the warm glow of the coffee. I’m reminded of my father who would make sure each of us complimented him on his coffee at least twice in the day; my grandfather who would knock back 6-8 small cups a day like tequila shots – hot as hell and twice as strong; my grandmother who’d sip her coffee while cradling the hot cup in the “pallu” of her saree… she took her coffee with four spoons of sugar even at the age of 97 – I can still hear her irritably ticking off the cook – “would it kill you to add another spoon of sugar to my coffee?”, feisty one, that; my sister who’d take it any way she got it – good filter coffee, instant or even “bus stand coffee” – weak watery and bitter – generally the dregs of the decoction at the end of a day; the weddings of all my uncles where the cooks were told the quality of the coffee was as important as the food and that there was to be coffee on hand through the day; and finally, my uncle who had a unique personal philosophy of coffee.
His theory was this – the effort taken and the quality of coffee served to people in the South is directly proportionate to the closeness of the relationship. Close family and friends merit freshly made filter; acquaintances, neighbours and non-judgy friends get the morning’s decoction and re-heated coffee (generally frowned upon); people you could not be bothered with will be given instant coffee and finally, people you dislike – hastily made tea!
My personal evolution started with a frothy, thick, milky sweet coffee concoction in my teen years (way ahead of Starbucks) to a more mature, moderately strong and robust, slightly sweetened brew. But every sip still has the same effect…
TS Eliot spoke about Prufrock “measuring out his life in coffee spoons,” referring to the structured predictability of his protangonist’s life – to me, coffee represents all the unbounded richness and emotions of life – it exhilarates, soothes, calms, revives, bonds, fortifies your resolve, clears the cobwebs of your mind, helps you find a path through your problems… for every high, low, middling moment of our lives, the starting point of a solution or a celebration is… first let’s have some coffee…