This is not your American gas station brew
American filter coffee, also known as drip coffee, is the stuff of reluctant necessity. It’s late nights at diners and gas stations and the bleary automatic-timer mornings that follow. Taste-wise, there’s very little to love about it. Stale, insipid, and often burnt; this coffee's only saving grace is that it is always reliably hot. If you were to encounter that kind of rapid, dubiously brownish dripping anywhere else in your kitchen, you would call the plumber.
But in Madras, India (known by some as Chennai) filter coffee is a revelation. Madras filter, or decoction kaapi, a chicory-laced coffee poured into furiously hot milk, is the lifeblood of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh. It’s stronger than espresso, surprisingly unctuous, and, if properly poured, beautifully frothy. While honey or jaggery (an unrefined cane and date juice affair) are the traditional sweeteners, regular sugar is standard today. In the United States it can reliably be found at chains like Saravana Bhavan, or anywhere that plies a dosa-and-idli trade.
To make Madras filter coffee at home you need a specific metal device as well as the dabbara serving set used to aerate it before serving, but in a pinch, a Vietnamese Phin filter, short glass, and small bowl will do. Your local Indian store should carry ready blends, but several Louisiana-style chicory coffee mixes would work here, too. Onto the brewing: you add your coffee to the top chamber, which is perforated with tiny, pinpricked holes, and tamp it down with the large-holed press disc that also helps to control the flow of liquid. Then add water, brought to a roiling boil, followed by the lid; some 20 minutes later, your decoction is ready. Add it sparingly to hot milk, and sweeten if you like. And finally, the fun part. The drink is sometimes called meter coffee because of the way it is poured (or ‘pulled,’ in its Singaporean and Malaysian iteration, kopi tarik) between a metal glass and small bowl, to cool it down and to froth it up, arcing like a ribbon dance at ever increasing heights that tap out at a human armspan. I have trouble getting more than a few inches without spattering scalding coffee everywhere.
The origins of coffee are shrouded in apocrypha as murky as drip coffee—some say an Ethiopian goatherd noticed the animals wilding out after nibbling on the bush; others attribute it to a Yemeni doctor-priest whose discovery of the plant, when exiled and starving, earned him his passage home. What we do know is that by the 15th century coffee was being successfully cultivated in the Yemeni port city of Mokha, and became associated with the Sufi tradition for its stimulant properties. For a while Yemen enjoyed a strict monopoly on the global supply of coffee, until the Sufi mystic Baba Budan was able to smuggle seven seeds back to India in 1670 following a pilgrimage to Mecca. He evaded detection by strapping them to his belly, or so the story goes. From there, it spread to Europe where, like a homesick immigrant, it failed to flourish. In an effort to make their scraggly plants taste more like the prized Yemeni bean, an enterprising French chef mixed local coffee with with chocolate, and mocha as we know it today was born.
Back in Karnataka, Baba Budan told his gathered followers about the wondrous substance he had found (omitting, of course that he had stolen it). He planted his seven seeds on the Chandragiri Hills, which were renamed the Baba Budangiri in his honor. Coffee has been grown on those slopes in India ever since, spreading to encompass regions of several southern states today.
On family trips to the hill station of Ooty in Tamil Nadu, this is the coffee we would bring back—a freshly ground combination of Robusta and Peaberry beans (so named for their round shape, born of a mutation that means a fruit develops only one bean, with all the cannibalistic savagery of a vanishing twin). Medium-roasted and mixed to order, its grind is finer than espresso and more akin to Turkish coffee in its powderiness. A small amount of chicory is added; it retains water longer than the grounds do, resulting in greater extraction of flavor for a more potent brew. The root’s pronunciation in local accents is also one proffered explanation for why the best filter coffee is also known as degree coffee (“chicory” becomes “chigaree” and then “digaree”). Others include the use of high-quality milk (certified with a lactometer) and, more plausibly, a gradation of strength depending on how many times the same grounds have been used.
Despite its Sufi origins, Madras filter coffee today is most strongly associated with the worker-run India Coffee Houses. They were started in the 1930s by the national Coffee Board in an attempt to popularize the beverage across an avowedly tea-loving country, and quickly became gathering places for the Indian intelligentsia—journalists, activists, and artists, who would often hold exhibitions there. As profits declined in the ’50s, the board decided to shut the coffee houses down; thousands of workers were set to lose their jobs. Following a concerted organizing campaign spearheaded by communist leader A.K Gopalan, however, they agreed to hand ownership over to the workers, who formed cooperative societies that still manage the 400 or so outlets that remain today. Despite being organizing centers for political activism, these spaces were historically male-dominated, in a manner that will be familiar to anyone who has encountered the phenomenon of the brocialist. Today, their interiors largely remain as austere as ever—all rickety tables and plastic chairs, often red—but concessions to technologies like air-conditioning and Wi-Fi mean that they’re now frequented by a wide spectrum of people looking to get their caffeine fix on the cheap.
Centuries after his own trip, Baba Budan would find an heir in the Scottish botanist and plant hunter Robert Fortune. Disguised as a wealthy Chinese merchant in a remarkable tale of yellowface-meets-corporate-espionage, Fortune smuggled tea seeds out of China at the behest of the East India Tea company. Today the tea-drinking culture they enforced, along with the English language, is one of the most pervasive legacies of British colonialism in India. (I was recently delighted to read about a Punjabi aunty in the UK who, when faced with a would-be robber waving a large kitchen knife, calmly told him to wait while she finished her tea before pulling her own knife.) I love a cup or several as much as the next Indian, to the point that it’s my preferred p.m. soporific (one black teabag, one masala, condensed milk with cardamom). But even if I count on tea to send me to sleep, filter coffee is the only thing I ever want to wake up to.