What’s the caste of filter kaapi?
Editor’s Note: ‘Turmeric Nation’ is a delightful collection of essays by Shylashri Shankar—who offers a nuanced exploration of the history of Indian cuisine. This is the history of the iconic filter kaapi—and the story of how a very British beverage became the cultural symbol of Tamil Brahmins. Excerpted with permission from ‘Turmeric Nation’ by Shylashri Shankar, published by Speaking Tiger.
I wake up every morning and absolutely have to smell the coffee! In the upper compartment of the Bialetti stovetop coffee maker… It simmers on the cooking range and within a few minutes, the whooshing sound indicates that the decoction is ready. I pour it into a large mug, add a dash of boiled milk and a teaspoon of soft dark brown sugar to offset the bitterness.
I thought I was returning to my roots since filter coffee is an age-old tradition in Tamilian households but it turns out coffee drinking in the South is of a recent vintage—dating to only the early twentieth century. “The habit of coffee drinking, I believe, entered our household only a few years before my birth ...Probably, it was only after 1918 that coffee drinking became a tradition with my father.” This is N. Subramanian, a historian and author, quoted by Venkatachalapathy in ‘In Those Days There Was No Coffee: Writings in Cultural History.’ Though coffee was grown in Mysore in the eighteenth century, the imbibers were Europeans.
So when does something become a tradition?... How do you render the unfamiliar into the familiar? Anyone who wants to successfully introduce new tastes has to ask three questions: What do you resemble? What do you taste like? What do you replace?...
Edward Harper who conducted fieldwork in Malnad on the west coast of South India remarks that the higher the caste, the more numerous and stringent are the taboos on what one eats and drinks. A strict Brahmin diet allows all fruits, a set of vegetables—but not those whose colour resembles meat—such as beetroot, pumpkin, carrots, tomatoes and radishes, and taboos onions, garlic and potatoes. These rules evoke an interesting conundrum—how do modern foods become a tradition in a stratified, insular, hidebound society like South India? How did coffee worm its way into becoming a tradition in South Indian households?
Venkatachalapathy argues that coffee drinking became entrenched among the middle class and Brahmins in late colonial Tamil society as a way of creating the barrier with the lower classes and castes. He says that earlier, everyone in the South drank neeragaram—made by adding water and salt to fermented water drained after cooking rice. When coffee appeared in the late nineteenth century, there was much opposition from puritans in the middle-class intelligentsia who tended to be Brahmins.
“Filter coffee is more addictive than even beer and arrack,” fumed one conservative. “In the last few years, some obnoxious stuff has emerged as eatables: coffee, tea, cocoa and liquor,” said another. More dire was coffee’s transgression into the habits of womenfolk. A correspondent wrote to Gandhi that “the greatest obstacle to the success of the Non-Cooperation Movement in Madras are our women. Some of them are very reactionary and a very large number of the high class Brahmin ladies have become addicted to many of the Western vices.” He rued the fact that these women drank coffee no less than three times a day.
What is interesting is that the reaction to coffee changed dramatically in the twentieth century. Notions of what constituted Tamil identity, says Venkatachalapathy, came to be articulated through coffee, or ‘kapi’. Coffee hotels or coffee clubs that served coffee with tiffin sprang up everywhere from the 1920s to 1950s. They were run by Brahmins who reserved separate sections for those of their caste in these hotels. Dalit writers abhorred this custom. Here is a definition of a coffee hotel in the Tamil equivalent of Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary:
“A public tavern instituted by Brahmins. A messenger from God to break Brahmin orthodoxy”...
Of course, notions of purity and pollution permeated the new drink. Tamil Brahmins used utensils that would accommodate their notions of purity. Coffee was drunk in metal tumblers with rims, so that it could be consumed without sipping, thereby reducing the risk of pollution. The attributes of good coffee, also referred to as ‘degree coffee’ included no chicory, using cow’s milk, not buffalo milk (which was seen as a sign of cultural and moral degeneration), and was to be savoured at frequent intervals in small tumblers (not large ones), at a temperature that would make it easy to gulp it.
The prescribed technique to drink it was as follows: tilt your head, raise your right arm and pour coffee into your mouth from at least a foot away to avoid the risk of touching the rim.
These commandments, particularly the latter two (savouring in small but frequent doses, and warm but not piping hot temperature), are similar to those followed by Italians. Coffee professionals these days say that good coffee should be savoured at a warm (46 degrees C) rather than very hot temperature (which is reserved for bad coffee). Like other foods, coffee too displays its most flavourful self at particular temperatures and in a particular type of roast.
In South India, tea and tea-drinkers came to be identified with the non-Brahmin, and the urban working class. It was cheaper than coffee. Here we see a difference in the way tea was viewed by North and South India. In the North, all castes and classes consumed tea. In Madras, the middle class appropriated coffee, though The Hindu newspaper did serve coffee to its press workers. The rest of the urban working classes were supposed to frequent teashops and (military) hotels run by Muslims.