RK Narayan’s jottings about his travels in America when he was in the process of writing his tour-de-force “The Guide” appears in full as “My dateless diary”. As he journeys across the vast continent, he is able to see American way of life at close quarters but he finds himself incapable of adopting their mannerisms or their free-from-shackles way of living. One incident stands out from his very first days in New York. At a self-service cafeteria he goes to take his breakfast and when he approached the coffee counter and was asked, “black or white?” “Neither”, replied Narayan. “What do you mean?. To this Narayan said, “I want it neither, black nor white, but brown, which ought to be the colour of honest coffee, that’s how we make it in South India where devotees of perfection in coffee assemble from all over the world.”
Coffee is a major social institution in my part of the world. It can be described as being an icon of Kannada culture and is a revered tradition in most households. It is customary that a cup of coffee is offered to any visitor when visiting a household in South India (In North India, Tea is preferred.) One sip of this delicious drink will make you understand why Indian filter coffee is such a revered beverage down South.
Serving the filter coffee is one of the most interesting parts of preparing the coffee. The coffee is poured back and forth between the ‘Battilu’ and the ‘Lota’ in a huge arc-like motions of the hand. A ‘Battilu’ is a wide metal saucer with lipped walls that is used to gently spin the coffee around to cool it. The ‘Lota’ is a tumbler used to hold the coffee and the coffee is drunk from the Lota. By pouring the coffee between the Battilu and the Lota, you will cool the hot coffee down to a suitable temperature while leaving a thick layer of froth on top to enjoy.
Recently, me and my wife met a friend at a Cafe Coffee Day outlet attached to a Petrol pump in Malleswaram. Since it was an odd hour, we couldn’t go to CTR. The menu card had Hot Chocolate, Espresso with cream, Tropical Iceberg, Almond Frappes and what not. I felt there ought to be a place for the traditional ‘Hot filter Coffee’ amongst these.
I remember drinking mesmerising coffee made by my Ajji and Amma. Ajji specially made coriander coffee-roasted, ground and boiled so perfectly-a childhood habit that might have to do with the fact that they were never well-to-do. It seems the ‘Kothambari’ coffee was MS Subbulakshmi‘s favourite as well.
I love coffee any time of the day (If I have a newspaper to go with it, it’s heaven). And by coffee, I mean filter coffee. I know a lot of people who are coffee addicts. An uncle of mine drinks a lot of Coffee. He says, “If you don’t drink coffee at least thrice a day, it’s sacrilege!” I always tell him that when the doctor wants to test his blood, all that he will be able to extract is Coffee decoction.
I have a subtle contempt for instant coffee. I consider, like most purists, that the making of filter coffee is almost a ritual, for the coffee beans have to be roasted and ground. Then the powder is put into a filter set and boiling hot water is added to prepare the decoction and allowed to set for about 15 minutes. The decoction is then added to milk with sugar to taste. The final drink is poured individually from one container to another in rapid succession to make the ideal frothy cup of filter coffee.
And you get steaming, hot filter coffee with an exhilarating aroma, creamy-golden-brown froth, fulsome flavour and lingering after-taste. Nothing like it to refresh and stimulate. And so easy to achieve if you brew it right.
To prepare filter coffee, you need some freshly roasted and ground coffee. Rinse coffee-making device and other utensils thoroughly in hot water before use, and dry. Fill coffee-making device to capacity- never less than three-fourths of the device. Add freshly boiled water to coffee- not vice versa, this spoils the taste. Use one part milk to three parts of coffee. Never use over-boiled milk- this ruins the flavour.
Add milk and sugar separately. And maintain uniform timing for every brew. Serve immediately after brewing. If not, keep at serving temperature by placing the coffee pot/device in a pan containing hot water or on a lightly heated asbestos pad.
Coffee is at its best when prepared in a tinned brass filter. Stainless steel is also good. The ratio of coffee powder to water is 1:15. Add three teaspoons of freshly roasted and ground coffee for every cup. Fix upper part of filter to lower part. Remove plunger from vessel. Add 10 g coffee powder and spread it uniformly. Immerse plunger pressing down on powder lightly. Pour 150 ml of freshly boiled water over plunger. Keep for five to seven minutes. Pour out coffee from lower part of filter into cups. Serve with 50 ml of milk and 6 to 7 g of sugar to taste.
Of course, it is finally up to the coffee lover to decide what’s best to ravish this celestial drink. And only you can decide the colour of honest coffee!