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There's No Coffee Like Filter Coffee, It's Like No Coffee I've Known......

Posted Sep 15 2009 4:47pm

Any recipe collection of Palakkad Iyer cuisine (which is one of the aims of this blog) would be incomplete without any reference to filter kaapi (filter coffee). This has been on my mind for some time now but I seem to have got carried away with other things and I just realized that my blog is in the danger of becoming a baking-cum-blog event blog! Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I has something different in mind when I started out.

When I was little the only coffee I knew was filter coffee. As I grew older I became aware that there was instant version that came in “Nescafe” bottles. This was not and still isn’t considered “coffee” by traditionalists. Growing older I discovered the expresso, mocha, cappuchino, etc for which drank in coffee bars and paid a lot of money for. Then, about 6 years back, we were in Portugal for a few months. There we discovered some more ways of drinking coffee or bica as they call it. The café or “kapi kashayam” as we used to call it (very strong black coffee), the pingado (café + a few drops of milk and my husband actually likes this stuff), meio de leite (half milk + half coffee and my preference), galao (with a 1:3 ratio of coffee to milk) and the garoto (milk with a bit of coffee in it, drunk mostly by kids). The Portuguese believe good coffee comes strong and black. My husband remembers one of his colleagues there sadly proclaiming, when my husband ordered the pingado, that “ adding milk to the coffee was neither good for the coffee nor for the milk”!
Getting back to the matter on hand, everyone knows (in my family, at least) that I am a tea drinker. That is to say that I have been to drink coffee on occasion but prefer “chai” over “kaapi”. These aberrations happen in every family now and then! But there’s hope as my daughter definitely takes after her father in this matter and is a coffee aficionado. But there are those days when this urge to drink coffee comes over me and nothing but the good old stuff will do.
Filter coffee is made by adding a strong coffee decoction to boiled milk and sugar. It is a strong yet milky coffee. There would variations from home to home depending on how much of decoction, milk and sugar is added according to personal preferences. My mother drinks her coffee strong with very little milk while my father prefers a weaker and milkier version. And filter coffee is always served in a steel “tumbler” (glass) and “davara” (a small bowl like vessel in which the glass sits), and never in a coffee mug. If the coffee is too hot to drink, then some of the coffee is poured from the glass into the davara to allow it to cool. I have seen, in the past, people who drink their coffee out of the davara rather than from the glass. One doesn’t see this anymore, probably it is not considered good manners, somewhat like drinking tea out of the saucer!!
In the old days, guests were always offered coffee and it came only in one flavour –filtered coffee. Of course, there was always the “mami” who made not so good coffee but they were rare. Occasionally, in some homes, Horlicks or Ovaltine also used to be offered and this was an honour. This could have been because these were imported in those days, quite expensive and not affordable. Kids always got milk.
The aroma released when hot water is poured over coffee grounds brings back memories from my childhood when we spent vacations at my maternal grandparents place. We used to wake up to the all pervading heavenly aroma of coffee. Coffee had magical names like Robusta and Peaberry. I remember a small hand cranked coffee bean grinder (which was attached to the edge of a kitchen table) my grandmother used to grind the roasted beans in. At some point my grandmother started buying her coffee powder which was blended just the way she wanted. I recall her telling my grandfather to buy the coffee from Kaapi Usha (this being a lady called Usha who sold coffee blended according to her customers’ preferences)!
At home, both my husband’s and my side of the family prefer coffee that is blended with a small percentage of chicory. The chicory enhances the taste of the coffee. But there is a section of coffee drinkers who believe that adding chicory to pure coffee is tantamount to adulterating it. I have a friend who keeps telling me that I’m murdering the flavour of pure coffee with chicory!

To make filter coffee:

You need a coffee filter, of course. The picture shows what a south Indian coffee filter typically looks like. A lower chamber that catches the filtered coffee, the upper chamber where the coffee powder/ grounds are spooned into and boiling water is poured, the plunger which is put into the upper portion after the coffee but before the water is poured in, and the lid.

The filter has an upper chamber with a perforated bottom. The coffee powder is put in this, covered with plunger and enough boiling water to fill the upper chamber is poured in and then closed with the lid. The coffee decoction drips and collects in the lower chamber. This takes a little time (about an hour). This is the first decoction and very thick and strong. Some more boiling water is usually poured into the upper chamber a second time and collected separately and used while making the coffee.
Usually the coffee filter is set up, with coffee grounds and boiling water, last thing at night, so the decoction is ready for coffee in the morning. The extra decoction can be refrigerated for the day.
There a couple of precautions to take while making filter coffee, else the quality and taste of the coffee suffer.
- Never heat the decoction or the coffee once the the decoction has been added to the milk. If you must, then place the decoction or prepared coffee in a hot water bath and warm.
- It helps to add the decoction to the milk and not vice versa. This also helps to judge how much decoction is required.

This is how I make coffee:
For the decoction:

3 -4 heaped tbsps coffee powder (this also depends on the brand of coffee used)
boiling water
Make sure the filter is clean and dry. Spoon in the coffee grounds. Tap slightly to allow the grounds to settle but do not pack it down. Cover with plunger. Pour the boiling water till the upper chamber is full. Close with lid and allow the coffee to percolate.

To make the coffee (for 1 cup):

2/3 cup boiled, hot milk
about 2 -3 tbsp first expressed strong decoction
a little less than ¼ cup second expressed decoction to make up the cup of coffee
sugar to taste (I use 1 tsp)

Pour the milk into a pan. Add the sugar and both decoctions. Stir and pour into another small pan so the coffee froths. Now pour into the glass and place the glass into the davara. Your coffee is ready. You can drink it out of your regular coffee mug, we do. The davara and tumbler sets come out for special occasions or when elderly folks come visiting.
If the coffee is too hot to drink, then about half the coffee is poured into the davara and allowed to cool till the required temperature.
We like our coffee strong and with a little more milk and drink it steaming hot. You can experiment with the amounts of milk, decoction and sugar till you find a proportion that suits your palate.

My first experience of true filter coffee making was after I got married and I still haven’t lived down the experience. I made good tea but coffee had been my mother’s department till then. Soon after we were married, my father happened to visit us at my in-lwas’ place. It was late afternoon and my mother-in-law was having her nap. My husband and father decide they wanted coffee and I offered to make it. Big mistake! I went into the kitchen, boiled the milk, added the sugar and what appeared to be coffee decoction. I poured it out and took it to my husband and father. Both took their first sips, swallowed and then had the weirdest expressions on their faces. I could make out the coffee tasted awful. My father didn’t want to say anything in front of his new son-in-law and my husband didn’t want to appear unsupportive of his new wife in her father’s presence!!
Apparently I had used the watery second expressed decoction instead of the first expressed stronger one to make the coffee. I wasn’t even aware that there could be two decoctions!!! I am happy to say that I have vastly improved since then and make a reasonably good filter coffee now.
For some more interesting write-ups on filter coffee do check out these posts at the Saffron Trail and the Yum Blog.
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