As a travel writer, seeking out the cliché-food of each city is what I love to do. In Delhi, I keep returning to paranthe-wali gali; in Bombay, I know where you get the best ever vada-pau and shrikhand; in Kolkota, there’s a favourite mishti-doi place I never fail to visit.
Similarly, when friends visit from other cities, Murugan Idli Store facing Besant Nagar Beach is where I head them off to, for the real taste of Chennai.
But something came and spoilt the excitement of eating the typical local food at each city. It’s called The Food Court at the Mall. Suddenly all kinds of everything has become readily available in every big city… Like an overwhelming buffet spread at an over-weight Indian wedding, each Indian state is never more than a plastic fork’s throw away from the other.
I was at the Delhi airport food mall recently, when I saw that the most crowded restaurant of all was “Vango!” I wondered how many knew it meant “Do Come!” in Tamil, but come they had— to eat idli, dosa, vada, sambar, quite happy that it was as good as anything they could have in Chennai.
Mmmm, the crisp masala dosa was tasty, I reluctantly admitted... but when I sipped their filter coffee, I was oddly happy that it was a disappointment. Aha! They simply haven’t got it; you still have to come to Chennai for the real thing, my friends! I wanted to tell the adjoining tables, slurping away with satisfaction.
I have on several occasions taken our humble old South Indian ‘ever silver’ or stainless steel household coffee maker for my friends elsewhere. “The coffee at your house was just outstanding! Please tell me how to make it, I can never get it right…” has usually prompted this gift idea.
Of course if I had to include all the prepping instructions too, they’d promptly run back to the instant gratification of a Nescafe. As every Madrasi great grandmother will tell you, it all starts with the right proportion of coffee and chicory seeds, roasted just so over a fire, then immediately powdered in a good old handgrinder bought in Mylapore’s bylanes. Then comes the correct spooning of powder into the top cylinder, the gentle, firm pressing using the filtering disc by practiced hands; the pour of scalding water, the sharp tap-tap of the lid to get the decoction going… And then the patient wait for the drip drip drip, even as the incredible aroma of brewing coffee heightens your anticipation.
Next, the correct blending in of hot milk, the sugar, followed by (no spoons here!) the all important step: the mixing. A rapid pouring of the blend, back and forth between two containers gets it aerated and frothing, then into a shiny tumbler with a dabarah saucer below as tiny bubbles burst with the aroma along the coffee surface. Aaha!
Watching this mixing ritual itself can be fascinating; the coffee leaps from one vessel into the other in a dramatic arch, without a drop being spilled…leading to the notion that in Madras, you can ‘buy coffee by the metre’. And for those curious about the board outside tiffin homes: “Degree Coffee Served Here”, it’s not about the hot degree of your beverage; it refers to ‘coffee of the first degree’—or the very first thicker decoction extracted from a filter, without diluting it. This makes the delicious difference—and usually just a tiny tumbler full of coffee is all you need for blissful satisfaction.
While other states of South India may claim equal accolades to the making of filter coffee, somehow Madras Filter Coffee is what the gilded menu cards in 5-star hotels invariably call it. However, the fancy machined froth with that ‘something missing’ taste has many a purist frothing in the mouth, quite literally, as he’s paying eight times the price of the real kaapi served elsewhere…
And that ‘elsewhere’ is a delightful new coffee on-the -go kiosk that recently opened at a busy shopping area in Chennai. Imaginatively brand-named “Kaapi Cheenu”, after its enterprising young MBA-owner Manu Srinivasan, or Cheenu to friends. This tiny shack with a tiled roof is held up by miniature Chettinad pillars, even as a backdrop of a typical Madras grandmother surreptitiously holding out a tumbler of coffee to an impish kid adds to the mood. Srinivasan says he found so many takers for his genuine filter coffee in his days at MICA, Ahmedabad, that he decided on this business venture.
Some experimental munchables like “Corn Chilli Cheese Vada” are also on offer here, as you sip on your dose of superb, authentic Chennai coffee. At the incredible price of just Rs 15 a cup!
Driving on after my supremely satisfying cuppa, I passed Park Sheraton, right in the neighbourhood. It struck me then that Kaapi Cheenu may also be a cheeky dig at the well-known coffee parlour within its posh 5 star premises, called what else, but “Cappucino”.
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