“M.S Subbulakshmi’s Suprabatham playing loudly on a cassette player, women busy with their bowls of powdered rice, competing with each other to draw the prettiest kolam at their respective entrances. A fresh edition of the Hindu, kept on the dining table for the man of the house to read. And of course! A morning cup of filter coffee for everyone: from the pensioner grandfather to the late for work granddaughter. A perfect day, for any Tamilian, in any part of the world begins with the morning filter kaapi.
It was “Baba Budan” , a Muslim holy man, who smuggled seven seeds of coffee form Mocha on his way back to India after his pilgrimage. He then planted these seeds near Mysore to start south India’s love affair with this beverage. However it took another 300 years, to the beginning of the 20th century for the coffee drinking to become popular with the average Indian. Even at the turn of the 20th century, “Ayothidas Pandithar”, a radical intellectual, refers to Coffee as a European drink.
Before coffee took over the Tamil middle class, in the early 20th century, coffee drinking was greatly critcised. Conservatives argued that coffee drinking was the root cause for every malady. Infant mortality, diabetes and constipation were blamed on coffee drinking. In an article in the newspaper Navashakti in 1927, Fundamentalists even christened it “kutti kal” or junior alcohol when they referred to the beverage.
In spite of these criticisms, coffee drinking kept growing and had replaced neeragaram (cold rice-water) as the preferred morning drink. The nutritional and healthy qualities of neeragaram were overlooked for the intoxicating taste of coffee.
An advertisement for Narasu’s coffee in 1943 called coffee “the elixir that drives away weariness.”
Preparation of this coffee and how it was savoured were very different from how it was in the west. Here, coffee bean varieties such as plantation A or peaberry is mixed with a smaller proportion of chicory seeds (more the chicory stronger the coffee) before roasting them over a charcoal fire. When the seeds, turn into that perfect shade of brown releasing a fragrance known to the expert, it is removed from the roaster and sent in for grinding. These fine grains are then put into the upper cup of a filter, when boiling hot water is poured over these grains; the perforated disc at the bottom of the upper cup slowly starts to release a decoction, drop by drop, taking as long an hour for a cup. The decoction is mixed with the purest of cow’s milk and in “R.K Laxman’s” words “and then the adding of sugar, just enough to mitigate the bitterness but without producing sweetness.”
Coffee houses and Coffee clubs started to emerge with the growing popularity of the beverage. These hotels, often run by Brahmins, served a Tiffin. It became a place of congregation, where friends met and a place where people would go when they were bored of eating at home. Meetings: both business and casual. Famous coffee houses in Chennai were built close to railway stations, hospitals and temples. The coffee in these Brahmins run hotels were considered excellent, but tea, which is a more popular drink in other parts of the country were seen as a Muslim drink in Tamil Nadu in spite of being cheaper. A person had to go to a Muslim hotel called a ‘military hotel’ to taste good tea.
Coffee grew from a beverage drank by a few to that of the entire middle class. It captured the imagination, diet and an irreplaceable part of the Tamil lifestyle. Going out or inviting a guest home would start with the inevitable question, “kaapi saapidlaama? (Will you drink coffee?) In a classic Tamil short story “ Kadavulum Kandasamy Pillayum” , the protagonist takes his guest lord Shiva to a nearby coffee hotel in the intersection of the esplanade and broadway of Madras when he visits earth for the first time. This best describes the love, Tamilians have for their coffee.