Growing up in a tambram household in the seventies meant you woke to the sounds of MS Subbalakshmi singing the Venkatesha Suprabhartam and the smell of fresh filter coffee. I have always loved this ritual of coffee drinking and even today take my time to drink my first cup of coffee.
Filter coffee or kaapi as we southies call it, is the perfect cup of coffee. I rate it far above any coffee chain and with due apologies to coffee drinkers from popular coffee chains, I just don’t see the attraction for those, especially with the prices they charge. So what’s the difference between an espresso and filter coffee? I looked this up since I used to think an espresso is just the decoction of the filter coffee which is thinned slightly. An espresso, Italian for quick, is brewed with with high-temperature at almost boiling and has pressurised water running through finely ground coffee beans. It is also denser and more concentrated than filter coffee. The filter coffee is somewhat similar, it is made by filtering packed ground coffee through hot, boiling water through a filter, but instead of being pushed out by pressure, the water poured on the top half of the coffee filter runs down to the bottom purely on the basis of gravity. This means the brewing process takes much longer and is not really instant as the espresso is. It also means, you need much more water and coffee grounds to get the same amount of decoction for filter coffee.
I have never liked drinking milk and there are many stories in my home about how my paternal grandmother would force feed me milk, even as a toddler. Because of this intense distaste for milk, I must have made the switch to some sort of chocolate milk pretty early on. It was some protein powder in various flavours including chocolate that I drank for a few years. I switched to drinking coffee pretty early considering that most people I know didn’t start drinking tea or coffee until their teens.
My grandmother and then my mother used to buy raw coffee beans from the coffee board once every few months and then grind them till the house was full of this evocative aroma of coffee. Then using a small coffee blender they used to grind a small amount of the beans which would be just enough for a week or so. This ensured that the coffee we brewed was absolutely fresh. When I started college, it became my responsibility to get the raw coffee beans since there was a coffee board office not too far from my college. I still remember she would buy the Peaberry and Plantation beans. The Peaberry beans are also known as caracol, which is Spanish for snail, and is a naturally occurring mutation present in arabica and robusta coffee varieties where only one bean is present inside of the coffee cherry instead of two. The Plantation variety is probably a coffee plantation crop and I have no idea if it is a robusta or arabica.
A few years after I graduated and started working, the coffee board closed down its office from where we used to purchase our stock of raw coffee seeds and once my mother finished up her stash, she started buying blended coffee powder. Fortunately for us, we live very close to the heart of the tambram community, Matunga, where there is a store which sells freshly ground coffee powder, so that’s where she buys it from today. And when I make a trip to Mumbai, I never come back to Singapore without a few kilos of that freshly ground coffee powder in my luggage.
I have always been an early riser and used to wait for my mother to boil the milk and make coffee when I was young. Usually at that point, it would be just the two of us who were awake and in that dim lighting in the kitchen when the world is just waking up. Coupled that with a cup of hot steaming filter coffee in the traditional tumbler and dawara where the coffee is not stirred, but pulled is sheer bliss. When my mother makes coffee for BB, GG and S who usually drink in mugs, she will use a tumbler and dawara, which is a small cup which is used to pull the coffee and pull it to mix the milk, coffee and sugar together, with that lovely layer of froth on top and then pour it into a cup for them to drink. Even today my favourite time of the day is in the morning when I am the only one awake and it’s just me and a cup of coffee. Although now, I prefer my coffee to be black rather than with milk, it’s still a filter coffee which I brew every few days and refrigerate.
Another tradition in my home and I think most tambram households, is the ritual of a second cup of coffee after breakfast. Though I don’t follow it in Singapore, but when I am in Mumbai, that half glass of coffee after breakfast is something I really look forward to. And I drink my coffee with milk while in Mumbai because that to me is the taste of my childhood, adolescence and youth and it doesn’t matter how old I get, when I drink that cup, I am instantly transported back in memory.
I can drink lots of coffee, but a few years back, decided to restrict it to twice a day and only indulging in the third cup if I am super tired or outside with friends. I wrote an ode to coffee some time back, so pop by there to read if you are a fan of coffee. As with all my memory posts, writing this brought a smile on my face while I was transported back in time, a time when life was uncomplicated and simpler, when our needs were simple and a cup of good filter coffee was all it took to welcome someone to your home! What’s your favourite coffee memory?