South India’s Street side Coffee Culture
( There is a possibility that some tamil words may have been
misspelt as the author is not from India)
Early one morning last week I queued outside Sri Gopi Iyengar Coffee and Tiffin Center, a coffee bar just outside the monumental Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. My long wait under a scorching sun was rewarded with a small glass of fragrant, caramel-hued brew topped with a fluff of white foam. Though a moderate coffee drinker at home, I was already on my fourth dose of the day. It would be far from my last, for in this South Indian state, coffee is as delicious as it is ubiquitous.
India is most often associated with tea, but java culture runs deep in the country’s southern states. Coffee was introduced to what is now Tamil Nadu’s neighboring state of Karnataka in the 17th century by an Indian Muslim saint named Baba Budan, who smuggled seven beans from Yemen while on pilgrimage to Mecca. Cultivation flourished under the British, and India now produces some 300,000 tons of coffee per year. Tamil Nadu is the country’s third largest grower after Karnataka and Kerala.
“No true blue South Indian would ever do without his or her filter coffee early morning ,” says Chennai food writer Sadita Radhakrishna. The author of a forthcoming book on Tamil Nadu cuisine, Ms. Radhakrishna remembers that when she was growing up in Bangalore, “every single day, coffee seeds were roasted and ground on an old coffee grinder with a handle” and brewed in a traditional lidded drip filter made of brass.
Tamil Nadu residents still sup at home, but coffee is also served in messes, restaurants and chain cafes with catchy monikers like Hot Chips. But the majority of the state’s java is served and drunk at coffee bars, a term that describes a range of street establishments from standalone shacks just wide enough to accommodate a vendor and carts parked under a corrugated roof to huts carved out of the ground floor of permanent structures.
At a coffee bar, your hot drink (many serve tea as well) is ordered, prepared, served and paid for at a window fronted by a small counter. It’s at the counter that you drink while standing on the pavement, perhaps as you nibble a piping-hot crispy daal fritter or a tea biscuit plucked from a metal-topped glass canister. Takeaway is always an option, provided you bring your own receptacle.
In southern India, the brew method of choice is slow drip in a brass filter, which can hold a cup of water or be sized for a crowd at up to 10 liters, and is kept gleaming via regular applications of tamarind paste. Some java jockeys use the sock method, pouring hot water or milk through fine grounds in a piece of muslin suspended from a metal ring. Beans are Arabica, robusta or a mix of the two, always blended with chicory.
Sugar is a given (ask for konjam jeeni for a less sweet brew), and so is India’s wickedly rich full-cream milk, kept hot on a burner near the counter. To prepare an order the vendor places sugar in a wide-lipped metal tumbler, adds a shot of coffee and a ladle of milk, and then simultaneously blends, cools and froths the liquid by pouring it back and forth between two tumblers, often from great heights (thus its nickname “meter coffee”). Utter the words konjam kuda and he’ll add a flourish of black coffee to the surface of the drink.
Depending on the type of bean used, southern Indian coffee can be smoky, winey or even a bit cinnamony, and the chicory adds a hint of nuttiness. In over a week of steady sampling around Tamil Nadu, I drank my best (and strongest) glass at Gopi Iyengar, though I’d rate all of the others nothing less than wonderful. Served in small doses for as little as 8 Indian rupees (about $0.13) a glass, southern India’s coffee-bar coffee goes down like ice cream — leaving room, pocket change and a hankering for just one more.
Coffee bar at Sri Gopi Iyengar Coffee and Tiffin Center, 37/35 West Chitrai Street, Madurai, Tamil Nadu.