Making coffee in South India is an art. This is the story of my first taste of South India’s coffee. Since I wrote this story, I have drunk coffee all over South India. It is a very special drink and I recall with fondness many of my regular coffee places and the people that made my coffee each day. Love you guys.
Coffee. It takes time. It takes technique. It takes experience. It takes mindfulness.
Perhaps it is an art handed down from generation to generation.
Good coffee in South India is SO good, there is no doubt in my mind that it has taken lifetimes to perfect.
Unfortunately, not all coffee in South India is good South Indian Coffee. Unfortunately, the ubiquitousness of instant coffee has meant the demise of the wonderful traditional South Indian coffee in many places. Unfortunately, the quickness of powder, chosen over the hours of making a great coffee, has compromised the taste. But the traditional maker is still to be found, if you seek carefully.
On my recent trip to India I had not had a decent coffee in weeks. It is always a puzzle to me why hotels cannot make a good coffee? Why is that? Someone should institute a study of hotel coffee.
I was staying at the Trishul in Tiruvannamalai, a great local hotel. I wandered back to the room one afternoon after a tiring day of temple visiting, needing a shower bucket bath and a rest, and said to my room mate – I fancy a coffee.
The man in the corridor took my order, and then took it a second time. Sometimes good things have to be ordered twice.
About 15 minutes after the second order, he knocks and walks straight into our room with a tray, two metal teapot-like jugs, and two cups. Something smelt like heaven. No really, it smelt like heaven. A few rupees later, I am exploring the jugs – one had a very strong black almost syrupy liquid, the other had boiling milk, already sweetened.
We poured the coffee – a couple of tablespoons of the strong coffee, and the rest milk.
We took a sip.
I nearly fell off of my bed.
It was the best coffee that I have ever tasted.
Strong, sweet, milky coffee with a real coffee flavour. A real coffee flavour. Strong. Sweet. Cofffeeeee. Good. Very. Very. Good.
A ritual was established – coffee at the Trishul every afternoon of our stay in Tiruvannamalai. Sadly, it was the only most excellent coffee that I found on this trip. I took to drinking chai, and became addicted to it. But that is a story for another post.
What makes the difference?
There are several factors, as far as I can gather, that make all the difference. And I welcome your comments too.
Firstly, hot water is dripped very slowly through the grounds – it will take several hours, and produces a very strong thick coffee.
Secondly, the milk is boiled. Boiling milk changes its taste – something known to our Asian and Indian neighbours but not generally known or well used in the West. Boiling milk makes it sweeter somehow. We know that it changes the milk – you need to boil milk first to make paneer or yoghurt, so there are some chemical changes that occur during the boiling. But the taste alters also.
Thirdly, boiled milk is easily frothed to get that characteristic top on good South Indian coffee. In South India this is done by pouring the coffee and milk back and forth between the cup, which is made of metal, and a larger, serving bowl also made of metal. The pouring is done in an arc, allowing the person to get a large distance between the cup and the bowl, and this in turn cools the coffee – milk mixture, absorbs prana into the coffee from the air, and froths the milk.
And finally, the love and the pride that the good coffee maker puts into his art surely adds a sweetness to the coffee that cannot be produced by sugar alone.
Reproducing South Indian Coffee at home
Most excitingly, I have managed to buy a South Indian coffee maker and have made some great cups of coffee that take me right back to the Trishul. It is a 2-compartment container with tamper. Ground coffee is placed in the top, boiling water is poured over this, and the coffee collects in the bottom container.
However, I will leave it to the experts to explain in better detail the knack of making it. Just keep in mind that it is not a 2 minute wonder. Good things take time to make. Good coffee can take an hour or two.
Making South Indian Coffee on the Stovetop
There is a great video on YouTube which takes you through the very traditional ritual of making coffee without any special equipment. It is amazing and fascinating to watch the attention that this beautiful brown-amber liquid gets. The result is so good.
Making Filter Coffee
The Yum Blog has a post that describes this method with a wonderful slide show of the method.
Saffron Trail talks about her Mother-in-law’s method of making filter coffee.
And Salius’ Kitchen writes about making filter coffee with a very old brass filter coffee maker.
Arun Shanbhag nostalgically discusses kaapi (indian coffee) and how he makes it at home – including which coffee to buy. Great photos.
Eatomaniac makes Sth Indian coffee every morning and has great pics to show how to make a good cuppa joe.