Friday, May 03, 2019

Life on the slow track - Filter Kaapi in Kumbakonam

When in search of a perfect filter kaapi that the town of kumbakonam is famous for, many a localite will direct you to Sri Venkataramana mess which is where arguably the most authentic filter kaapi is served.  
If you happen to be on one of those whirlwind weekend Navagraha temple pilgrimage with no time to spare and the fear of missing out on filter coffee is gripping you, be forewarned. 
Sri Venkataramana Mess is closed on Sundays.
It does not matter to them that Sundays could be the day when the business is at its peak, what with those tourists from the cities coming down to Kumbakonam.  But Sri Venkataraman Mess
has been in business for a long time now to worry about loss of potential market share. Instead they are known for their employee friendly policies.
Legend has it that when their chief Chef who prepares their legendary Ulundu Vada was recovering after a long illness, he was not asked to take on the rigours of relentless work in the kitchen.  Instead when he resumed work, he took up a black board and pursued his hobby of sketching.  He began sketching the days menu with colorful chalk pieces sketching something different everyday.  During the music season when musicians congregated in kumbakonam for the Thyagaraja Aradhana he drew a chalk sketch of the three doyens of Carnatic music :  Muthuswany Dikshithar, Syama Sastry and Saint Thyagaraja on the black board along with the special menu for the day. 
An intrigued press reporter found this very unique and special and wrote about it in The Hindu, South India’s staple newspaper best savoured with a tumbler of Filter kaapi every morning, made to the exacting proportions as prescribed in Kumbakonam.
Sri Venkatamana mess became an instant hit on the world wide web. Since then filter coffee fanatics and tourists have toured kumbakonam sometimes solely in search of that authentic cup of Kumbakonam filter kaapi.  
Sri Venkatramana mess is no fine dining restaurant. If anything it is a busy no-nonsense eatery where you go for a quick breakfast, lunch or dinner. The service is quick, usually served on a banana leaf, by efficient, no-nonsense waiters who have no time for a small talk.
Talking about their signature Filter kaapi, you need to specify that you are there for the degree kaapi lest you should be disappointed.   Because there are two types of coffee served here. The ordinary coffee and the Degree (Filter) Kaapi. The ordinary coffee is served in stainless steel tumblers and Dabara.  Whereas the Degree kaapi is served in brass tumbler, deftly placed in a Dabara. A Brass tumbler holds up the heat longer, while you savour your Vada, Pongal or Dosai, sub consciously whipping up your taste buds to savour the hot filter coffee from the Brass tumbler at the very end. 
Serving degree coffee in a Brass Dabara Tumbler is a tradition that has been followed ever since it was instituted says the proprietor of Sri Venkatramana mess.  The milk and the coffee decoction that is used to prepare the degree kaapi have an exacting specification. In the earlier days there was the Pasumpaal (cow’s milk) coffee club that structured and perfected the taste and recipe of the iconic kumbakonam degree kaapi.  Fresh cow’s milk was boiled and added to the Degree kaapi decoction.
There are varying degrees of degree kaapi. To begin with, the roasted Arabica and Robusta coffee seeds are roasted, coarsely ground and 10% Chicory powder is added to it.  Some say the origin of the word Degree is a corruption of the Tamil pronunciation of Chicory as Tikory. 
Anyway let us not digress. Getting back to the point of degree Kaapi, the freshly ground coffee powder is put into a brass filter and pressed with a presser. Boiling water is added on top of this simple mechanical device.  You wait for the decoction to drip down from the filter into a vessel fitted at the bottom of the filter.  The first decoction that has dripped down the coffee filter is called the first degree.  This one gives the aroma to the degree Kaapi. The second degree is prepared when more boiling water is poured down the press. It filters down and drips into a decoction that gives the taste to the degree Kaapi. 
The art of making a perfect filter kaapi is not complete until this concoction is mixed well by pouring it back and forth using the Dabara (the South Indian version of a saucer) and the tumbler (the South Indian version of the cup).
The filter coffee in lesser households and restaurants perhaps use the 3rd degree and 4th degree of decoction as well that drips from the filter.  But that is not the case at Sri Venkataramana mess, says  M Balachandran, its current proprietor.    Sri Venkataramana Mess has existed for more than seventy years now. Panjami Iyer was its original founder who started something called the pasumpaal (cow’s milk) coffee club (PCC) in Kumbakonam, then a small sleepy town serving as the satellite town for its bigger twin Thanjavur.  With a Cow shed behind the restaurant where they could milk fresh milk off the cows, the now not so secret ingredient of degree filter coffee was perfected in this place which was then called the Lakshmi Vilas hotel.
The rise of Pasteurised milk and non-availability of space in this busy town has made fresh cow’s milk very rare.  However Cow’s milk is procured from dairy farms around Kumbakonam that arrives by 4 am in the morning is now used to prepare the Degree Kaapi at the Sri Venkataramana’s mess.
Balachandran’s family took over this restaurant in 1983 almost 40 years since its existence. Before the Balachandran family bought over Sri Venkataramana mess, it was owned by Aiyyasamy Iyer and before him was Narayana Iyer, who actually named this place as Sri Venkataramana Mess.    They source their coffee powder from Mohan Coffee works who prepare the coffee powder with Arabica and Robusta seeds procured from coffee plantations of Chikmagalur in Karnataka, the state adjacent to Tamilnadu, not very far away from where the River Kaveri originates and flows down through Kumbakonam.
The exacting proportions of coffee powder, chicory and milk with which a degree kaapi is made of permeates the taste buds across many generations of Tamil Brahmins from Kumbakonam who have later migrated to other parts of India and the world.  A strong expresso or a cappuccino freshly brewed   from Starbucks does not come anywhere close to ‘Namma ooru Filter kaapi’ quips a staunch kumbakonam Tamil brahmin, trying to draw comfort with his morning cup of coffee at a Starbucks outlet in Central London.      
No wonder someone said …
Coffee is a beverage, Kaapi is an emotion.

Filter Coffee photo courtesy :

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous9:32 AM

    Very well written- possibly one of the best I have read in recent past! You should write a biography of 'Filter Kaapi'


Thank you for stopping by.
Good, bad or ugly ... Trust me I would love to hear from you...
Please leave your comments here.