In April, my stainless steel coffee filter ran dry. Which is to say, I ran out of my favorite coffee—in the midst of a lockdown, no access to my Indian grocery store, and broken supply chains (both retail and by way of visiting aunties loaded with gifts). Anyone whose day begins with the certainty of that one precisely made cup would understand when I say: I was sad.
In the end I substituted, managed, survived. (Okay, I may have begged a friend across town to mail me the dregs of her stash.) There were certainly far bigger worries to wade through, but its absence was felt. In a shaky world, it was the reassurance of that morning routine that I craved.
Filter coffee, or filter kaapi, is an integral part of South Indian food culture—and, for me, one steeped in nostalgia. When I was a child, unbeknownst to my mother, my grandmother gave me my first diluted half-mug, which carried with it the same sneaky thrill as that first furtive sip of beer a few years later.
As a teenager, the smell of freshly filtered coffee was my cue to get out of bed. As I shuffled down the stairs, my mother would be halfway through making coffee in her gnarled saucepan. Milk boiled first, to which a thick decoction (the coffee extract in the filter) was added—but never boiled—followed by sugar. The liquid was then deftly and repeatedly juggled between saucepan and mug to give it extra foam (norai)—this bit of food theater is entrenched in kaapi tradition (at many coffee houses you can see it poured from a meter high).
Our days began with the first sip and the crackling of a newspaper, my dad reaching for a pen to begin the crossword. Coffee consumed, we’d quickly fall into our practiced rhythms. There was no lingering or going for another mugful. This was a one-and-done kind of affair.
Because, when made right, one filter kaapi is all you need.
Though deeply ingrained in morning routines today, coffee isn’t native to India, let alone South India. Regardless of whom you speak to, its arrival is shrouded in myth. Did that one Sufi pilgrim really smuggle in seven beans from Yemen in the 16th century? Did the French introduce it? What is clear is that it proliferated under British rule, as Sandeep Srinivasa carefully reconstructs in his timeline of coffee in India. By the mid 1800s, coffee plants began to thrive in South India’s hilly regions, which proved to possess the perfect growing conditions for the crop.
Coffee drinking in South India had a shaky start. Seen as a predominantly upper-class Brahmanical drink, coffee played a direct role in the early-mid 1900s, as Srinivasa writes, in the Tamil caste’s struggle for equal access to the coffee houses of the time. By the time the struggle reached its zenith in the early 1940s, the Coffee Board of India (formed to promote coffee production) was born, and South India was producing enough arabica and robusta beans not just for export, but also to be…