Coffee

South Indian Filter Coffee Is Like No Coffee You’ve Had Before

Filter kaapi is an integral part of southern Indian food culture—it's also the best part of my day.

November 21, 2020
Photo by Ministry of Kaapi

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).

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Top Comment:
“I am from Trinidad with Asian roots. I never knew what the caste system meant and still means although illegal. Laws cannot eradicate centuries of practice and thinking. Thank you for sharing personal experiences everyone. Reading, sharing, learning, so we understand. Now to the Kaapi. Intriguing. Now I must investigate. Onward.”
— Vashti J.
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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 consumed domestically.

It isn’t just the beans that make South Indian filter coffee so unique, though—it’s a combination of how those beans are roasted and ground, brewed, and eventually served. A lot of these practiced rituals, along with the impenetrable sentiment for them, are passed down within families.

One of my own abiding memories from when we lived in Mumbai was accompanying my mother to a neighborhood called Matunga, a South Indian stronghold, to buy our monthly supply of coffee. There, I’d stand by as she oversaw the grind, enjoying the opportunity to practice her Tamil in what was often a lopsided conversation. On the drive home, the car’s recirculated air would be flush with the aroma escaping from the loosely bound packs of coffee. That unmistakable smell was largely thanks to the particular addition of chicory to arabica beans—in my mother’s case, in a golden ratio of 1:5.

Indeed, the subject of chicory—a caffeine-free coffee substitute used for its resemblance in color and aroma—cleaves South Indian coffee lovers down the middle. Purists hate when it appears in their coffee blend; others, like me, love its special touch of bitterness and strong aroma. (On my first visit to New Orleans, I gushed over the coffee at Café Du Monde, which is a mix of chicory and coffee—a rare sighting in these parts.)

According to Srinivasa, the addition of (and substitution with) chicory in filter coffee, as we know it today, took off during World War II, when coffee trade routes were disrupted and the industry suffered a setback. However, in this fascinating account tracing the roots of filter coffee, writer Vikram Doctor finds an antecedent as far back as 1876, in a Scottish drink called Camp Coffee. When mixed with hot milk, Doctor notes that the sweetened coffee-chicory essence tastes remarkably like filter coffee.

One of my own abiding memories, from living in Bombay, is accompanying my mother to Matunga, a South Indian-strong neighborhood, to buy our monthly coffee supply. There, I’d stand by as she oversaw the grind, enjoying the chance to practice her Tamil in what was often a lopsided conversation. On the drive home, the car’s recirculated air would be flush with the aroma escaping from the loosely bound packs of coffee.

The other distinguishing feature of filter kaapi is the filter apparatus itself. A simple but effective device, it is a stainless steel or brass percolator divided into two halves, with a plunger, and an airtight lid. The bottom of the upper half is pierced with the tiniest holes, through which the coffee drips into the container below. While similarly constructed percolators find mention in cookbooks like in Culinary Jottings for Madras, which dates as far back as 1878, as Doctor mentions here, the one in use today might well be a homegrown, practical, metal version of the foreign percolators introduced to India.

I think back to my own great-grandmother, who enjoyed working with her trusty metalsmith to design rustic versions of all sorts of non-native cookware—doughnut makers and dessert molds and egg poachers—and the evolution of filters from do-it-yourself to commercially produced seems entirely plausible.


Across the oceans today, in my Brooklyn home, filter coffee gives me the familiar foundation I need to start each day. Each morning, I get out my single-serving percolator (most filters for home use are sized for one or two) and measure out two heaping teaspoons of coffee. I take care to press down with the plunger—not firmly enough and you risk the hot water running through too quickly, too hard and it goes all clogged-drain on you—before I pour over the boiling water, and wait it out. It’s this slow-brewing process that makes the coffee so special. As Vikram Doctor tells me: “The initial heat gets some of the bitter aromas that you get from espresso, but not all of it, and then the longer brewing gets the mellow flavours.”

To the patient go the spoils.

A couple months into running out of coffee this past spring, and in an attempt to find a more sustainable supply, I came across a pandemic mini-miracle: Ministry of Kaapi, a supplier of “damn fine Indian coffee” right here in New York. Founder Danée Shows was introduced to South Indian coffee when her husband Shiv’s sister sent them a batch from India. She loved it so much, she searched high and low for replenishment here in the U.S.—and failed. Taking matters into their own hands, they set up shop, selling everything from coffee blends to paraphernalia, including the traditional tumbler and davara set that’s part of the ceremony of serving filter coffee (and is widely used today, but has its own troubled origins).

It isn’t just the beans. It’s a combination of how those beans are roasted and ground, brewed, and eventually served. A lot of these practiced rituals, along with the impenetrable sentiment for them, are passed down within families.

Shows enjoys the challenge of introducing kaapi to a new audience that often mistake it for American drip coffee (“it is a drip but a very slow one”). And for those intimidated by the filter or the brew time, they offer bottled decoction (liquid coffee extract) that can be stored in the fridge for up to a month. “Stocking your fridge with decoction means freeing up time, while still savoring a super fresh, small-batch brew,” she says.

At-the-ready decoction is a thrilling convenience, even for someone like me who carries her filter everywhere she goes. In India, friends tell me about iD coffee, decoction sold in sachets that have been a game-changer for those unfamiliar with the filtration process—North Indians particularly, but not exclusively, are more used to tea—but who crave the filter coffee made at friends’ homes.

My own mother is very used to requests for filter coffee from her (pre-pandemic) guests, and she’s always thrilled to oblige. Her only caveat: “Do you have 30 minutes? Because that’s how long it will take.” My father at this point would shift uneasily in his seat, having already prepared his goodbyes. He’d no doubt find a bottle of decoction or a stock of sachets very handy in these situations.

For the daily, and very necessary, morning cup, however, I will always enjoy the meditative ritual of slow-brewing that single, singularly delicious cup. On days when I know I’ll be short on time or patience, I let it drip the previous night, and it tastes just as delicious. But I almost never skip the frothing trick—the stretch-pouring between saucepan and mug—a bit of early-morning daredevilry to arrive at a coffee that hits the spot every time: smooth, strong, aromatic, with a lofty, wobbly crown of foam.

Hot tips:

  • Pick a ratio of chicory-to-coffee that you enjoy (15:85, 20:80…) You can also just pick a "pure filter coffee" (without chicory).

  • Store your ground coffee in the fridge so it stays fresh longer (and retains its aroma).

  • If you’re short on time, set the filter to drip before you go to bed. In cooler months, it will stay fresh on the counter. If it’s very warm, you might consider storing your decoction overnight in the fridge (once it has dripped).

  • Decoction can stay in the fridge for up to a day.

  • When making your cup, boil the milk, then cut the heat and add the decoction, ie, don’t boil the decoction with the milk—it loses flavor.

  • While the traditional way to drink it is hot, Partnerships Editor (and fellow filter-coffee fan) Erin Alexander loves drinking it cold with milk and ice (like an iced latte). “I know it’s against the rules, but it’s sooo much better than regular iced coffee,” she says. My thoughts on that? Have it as you will, as long as you enjoy it!


You Can Make It, Too

What's your favorite coffee—or coffee memory? Tell us in the comments below.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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Arati Menon

Written by: Arati Menon

Arati grew up hanging off the petticoat-tails of three generations of Indian matriarchs who used food to speak their language of love—and she finds herself instinctually following suit. Life has taken her all across the world, but she carries with her a menagerie of inherited home and kitchen objects that serve as her anchor. Formerly at GQ and Architectural Digest, she's now based in Brooklyn.

11 Comments

indiestar December 3, 2020
It's just so fantastic to see wonderful South Indian traditions being shared with the world in this way - love this, Arati! Also, I had no idea it was this easy - my mother-in-law who only makes coffee this way made it seem waaay more complicated!
 
Deepak P. November 27, 2020
have u ever tasted Grand Aroma in www.pandurangacoffee.com
thts the max in filter coffee luxury
 
Vashti J. November 24, 2020
I am from Trinidad with Asian roots. I never knew what the caste system meant and still means although illegal. Laws cannot eradicate centuries of practice and thinking. Thank you for sharing personal experiences everyone. Reading, sharing, learning, so we understand. Now to the Kaapi. Intriguing. Now I must investigate. Onward.
 
So S. November 23, 2020
Sounds delicious 🤤
 
Author Comment
Arati M. November 24, 2020
It really is. Let us know what you think when you try it :)
 
Baldev November 23, 2020
All this years they hid it so well. That special Mamaa ( Tamil Uncle ) Kopi. The very young me in Singapore and this delicious kaapi held fond memories. Stumbled on your article and now I know the secret of my Mamaa kaapi. Gotta get to Ministry of Kaapi. Will it beat my espresso machine, will nostalgia and delicious baarfi like bitter sweet kaapi win out. Me thinks so. Thank you for the walk down memory lane. Thankfully I grew up not knowing what caste system was. Trip to India in my teens was a shocker. I am still very very disappointed in otherwise a beautiful trip. My so called Jatt class ( higher class ) were simply landowners with many having to work their fields, yet somehow felt they were better than others. So lame. Now where’s my kaapi.
 
Author Comment
Arati M. November 24, 2020
Barfi-like kaapi. Love that description, Baldev. I was, like you, protected from the ravages of the caste system, but it is important to me that we don’t forget the history of these everyday practices, no matter how uncomfortable...
 
Anusha J. November 22, 2020
Thank you for this wonderful article. I’m a South Indian as well and have such strong memories of ‘kaapi’. Also, thanks for noting the troubled origins of the humble yet, now, controversial ‘tumbler and davara’. I grew up being told never to sip directly from the ‘tumbler’ in anyone’s house (probably because we were from the so-called lower rungs of the ladder). I never registered the ‘why’, until now, and I’m shocked to know the history. Never again! I’m going to sip with pride, and rightfully so.
 
Author Comment
Arati M. November 23, 2020
Thank you for sharing this, Anusha—and a little piece of your own personal history. "I'm going to sip with pride"—I love this so much.
 
Baldev November 23, 2020
Sip to your hearts content. Early 80s on my trip to India I cried. Reading your comment above I had tears in my eyes yet joy at the same time. We will all sip from the ‘tumbler’ and Kaapi it will be.
 
Anusha J. November 24, 2020
Arati and Baldev, thank you for those kind words. Another 'kaapi' store I recently found, although haven't yet personally tried, is Madras Kaapi (https://www.madraskaapi.com/). They're based out of Canada and are run by a husband-wife team who are crazy for 'kaapi' just like us and many others around the world. If you guys do try them out, let me know. I am going to run out of my stash and am still vetting out options to splurge this holiday season rather than wait until I am able to travel to India.