An Appeal For Reform In The Serving Of South Indian Filter Coffee

02/02/2016 11:30 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
Charles Haynes/Flickr

As far as simple joys of life go, a good cup of south Indian filter coffee ranks pretty high up there for me. But every time a steaming cup arrives at my table at a restaurant, the heady aroma rising from the hot liquid filled to the brim with a foam crown on top, it gets me thinking about how such a great culinary invention came to be paired with such poor design/user experience.

Yes, the dabara set in which it is typically served, is a terrible way of drinking filter coffee and while I normally trust markets and competition to improve consumer experience over time, this, like revolving doors at hotels (no, not QWERTY keyboards), has fallen through the cracks and is now a fit case for intervention.

Here's the trouble. Most restaurants fill the coffee to the brim of the tumbler. This means when you try to pour the coffee into the accompanying dabara, there is no surface to hold that won't immediately scald your skin. The rim is hot and the body of the tumbler is hotter. If you decide to wait till the tumbler is cool enough to be held by the rim, the coffee inside gets too cold, and insipid. I have tried gingerly lifting the tumbler with both hands. I have tried wrapping a paper napkin around the edge of the rim and then lifting it. These efforts have yielded roughly the same results: burnt fingers, spilt coffee, stained trousers, embarrassed companions, bruised ego.

Is there another restaurant item that demands paying customers to risk injury? No. That's why the dabara set needs to be replaced urgently as the carrier of this heavenly concoction.

When I consulted a friend who is knowledgeable in these matters, he said the problem was actually with me. If only I had grown up in Tamil Nadu drinking filter coffee from a young age, I would have developed resistance on my fingers. This perhaps explains why there is little demand for change from its core consumers.

So why did the Tamil filter coffee remain trapped in steel, a singularly unsuitable medium for the consumption of hot beverage?

In Kerala, where I grew up, we drink a lot of hot tea. But this is typically served in glass or ceramic cups. The thermal conductivity of stainless steel is about 16 times that of glass. So Kerala tea made the sensible transition from steel once glass and ceramic utensils came into wider circulation. So why did the Tamil filter coffee remain trapped in steel, a singularly unsuitable medium for the consumption of hot beverage?

May be there is tradition dating back centuries that must remain untouched? It turns out, Tamil Nadu doesn't have a long coffee drinking tradition. In his essay In Those Days There Was No Coffee, social historian A.R. Venkatachalapathy records that coffee drinking gained currency in Tamil Nadu only in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. It is fathomable that a 95-year-old Tamilian alive today might recall a childhood where coffee was still new, its rising popularity a source of great cultural anxiety. A practice dating back less than a hundred years cannot claim any protection on account of antiquity.

So how did coffee come to be served in a dabara set to begin with? I called Mr Venkatachalapathy, who was generous with his time, and offered a very interesting explanation.

This design was not meant for the hot hot coffee that everyone clearly likes these days.

Filter coffee was originally consumed lukewarm, he says. The decoction took time to drip and collect to form a thick, cold base. Hot milk was added to it and the final product used to be lukewarm. Now this has changed because restaurants make watery decoction and serve it hot and add boiling milk, resulting in a scalding end product.

But the main inspiration behind the design and use of the dabara set, Venkatachalapathy says, was Brahminism and its attendant horror of the saliva, even one's own, as a pollutant.

"The design of the dabara set is about brahmanical notions of purity and pollution. Saliva ritually pollutes. Brahmins were early adopters of coffee. So it was meant to be had lukewarm and to be poured into the mouth without sipping," he said.

That makes perfect sense. And brings to sharp and clear focus why we need reformation now. This design was not meant for the hot hot coffee that everyone clearly likes these days--else present day restaurants would have served it lukewarm. And if there are people who are scared of their own saliva, let's have pity on them and make allowance for dabara sets on request.

But as default and for everyone else, please end this torture, and just give us that goodness in a container that allows for the consumption of coffee as a peacetime activity.

ALSO READ | Podcast: Is Coffee Replacing Kaapi?

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