101 Ways Of Drinking 'Kaapi' And The One Inimitable Way Of Serving It

Every South Indian worth their filter coffee has priceless family legends. Here’s one

Sumathy Krishnan Updated: May 28, 2020 12:04:39 IST
101 Ways Of Drinking 'Kaapi' And The One Inimitable Way Of Serving It

For every ‘Southie’ family, there are some filter coffee (kaapi) moments strongly interwoven in their life’s journey, not to mention the idiosyncrasies around this legendary beverage .

Take the case of my brother’s family, with whom my parents live. It is my brother who reigns in the kitchen when it comes to kaapi. Right from getting the thickness of the decoction right to the quantity to be served, he is the one who meets my mother’s exacting standards—her coffee needs to be at a magic level somewhere between 1/4th to 2/3rd of the tumbler. I strongly suspect he has a pipette secretly hidden away in the kitchen! He then adeptly switches to cater to my sister-in-law, who likes her coffee bitter and piping hot, served precisely in a narrow window between her finishing cooking and getting to work. My nephews when they are around, will be served light coffee with loads of sugar. As for my brother himself, his time for savouring coffee is late at night, when he does not have to cater to others.

My father who is a frugal but discerning eater, also has punishing standards for kaapi. Secretly and without any ill will, he has profiled all our relatives and friends on the basis of how they serve coffee. Those who serve a tall steel tumbler frothing to the brim with coffee, made with thick milk, and generously sweetened, fall on the right side of this divide. As for the others, he will graciously accept juice when he visits them.

There is an unwritten hierarchy in every South Indian home—all ‘respected elders’ and the ‘bread winner’ in the family have to be served coffee made with the first brew of decoction. With the characteristic frugality practised in our homes, a second and third brew would be served to ‘lesser citizens’ of the household and the help. By the time, the third brew is made, it is a different drink altogether. This is probably the reason many of my cousins avoided drinking coffee pretending they disliked it. A few years ago, my daughter, who had taken to kaapi in her toddler years, created a scandal when she loudly pronounced it ‘not nice’ when she was offered kaapi made with second dose decoction at a family gathering.


Nothing can quite match the flourish with which my dear grandmother offered kaapi. Although she passed away more than 30 years ago, most of our relatives and friends, invariably savour this memory of her. Loma paatti, came from an impoverished family and was widowed when she was pregnant with my mother. Shutting herself off physically, she made the frugal kitchen her world and her lens to the world beyond it. As a young widow, she was discouraged from meeting people beyond the immediate family; so she developed a knack for connecting with them in an unusual way. Many turned up to hear the evocative description of food, recited in her inimitable way. The best was an ode to filter coffee. There is no way this English translation can do justice to her Tamil rendition, but here goes:

After waking at the crack of the dawn

And collecting milk from the udder of a fat jersey cow,

Slow boiling it until cream collects on top

While simultaneously brewing a syrupy thick decoction with Narasu’s coffee powder

In the 100-year-old brass filter,

I will serve you a tall tumbler of kaapi.

Frothing like a waterfall, though piping hot

Sweetened, just enough to tickle your taste buds,

Its aroma reaching the heavens,

An elixir only fit for the Gods.

Alas, I cannot vouch if the actual taste of her kaapi matched this description. I never found out as my paatti had stoutly denied me kaapi for the fear that I will turn dark complexioned (a real threat for her, with my dusky father and fair-skinned mother). I would, of course, give an arm and a leg to hear her recite this again, but that is not to be. Though, something tells me my brother and nephew may carry her legend forward.

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