Sweet, spicy, and a meter long!
In the southern states of India, and particularly the city of Chennai in Tamil Nadu, coffee takes on yet another form. It’s known, rather generically, as filter coffee, but it’s more fun than it sounds.
As in Bosnia and Vietnam, it begins by brewing a strong, concentrated quantity of coffee, called a decoction in Indian English. The traditional method uses a stainless steel device that looks like a French press but works more like a Vietnamese phin, in that the water drips through by gravity at a rate moderated by the filter holes.
The coffee is not served black. Before serving, it’s typically mixed with boiling milk and a sweetener such as sugar or honey. Then, it’s poured into its most distinctive trademark, a small stainless steel tumbler – perhaps the size of two espresso shots. That cup is placed inside another stainless steel dish called a dabra, which is shorter and wider than the tumbler but designed to hold the same volume. The fact that they are stainless steel is not particularly noteworthy – most dishes in India are metal. But when you receive your coffee order, you get both of these cups together, and it’s up to you to finish the preparation.
When I received my first coffee after an exhausting overnight flight to Chennai, my first thought was that the dabra was some sort of saucer meant to prevent a spill because the barista obviously overfilled the tumbler. But my Couchsurfing host (who had just brought me from the airport on the back of his motorcycle with all my luggage during the morning rush hour) eagerly demonstrated the technique. Essentially, you juggle the coffee between the two cups by pouring it back and forth several times. It can be at close range, but (if you have the skill for it) the farther apart the better, which is why it’s sometimes called ”meter coffee.” The goal of the theatrical pouring is threefold: to mix the coffee, milk, and sweetener, to cool the coffee to a palatable temperature, and to aerate the coffee so that it develops a nice froth on top. Basically, while the Italians were busy developing fancy machines to create foamy cappuccinos, the Tamils discovered that you can achieve an equally delicious result by hand if you just have a little fun with it!
An added layer of excitement is the food that filter coffee is served with. A South Indian breakfast is no mere doughnut or crêpe. You’re most likely to encounter steaming idlis and masala dosas, which are savory dishes made with batters of fermented rice or lentils that you tear apart with your hands and dip into accompaniments like refreshing coconut chutney and spicy sambar. There’s no doubt that the unique and heavily-spiced flavors of a South Indian breakfast contrast with the coffee more dramatically than you may be used to, but don’t dismiss it until you’ve tried it!
Stick around for the next post, where we’ll make the final stop on this coffee tour in a country with some of the world’s thirstiest coffee drinkers!