The Filter Kaapi Culture In A Tumbler And Davara
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Many people prefer to kickstart their day with a hot cup of coffee in South India. The households in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, in particular, cannot begin their day without a cup of hot filter coffee, or filter kaapi, as they call it.

In fact, most people wake up not to the alarm ringing but to the waft of aromatic coffee being prepared in the early hours of the morning. But it was not so back in the 19th century when coffee became a tradition in Tamil households and popular in the country. It was a hot beverage for the elite and was served in a tumbler and davara, a rimmed version of a cup and saucer.

Back in the day, not everyone could simply walk into a coffee shop or restaurant and order a cup of coffee. Coffee was expensive. It is said that a cup of coffee was sold for half an anna, while one could easily get tender coconut water or a glass of buttermilk for one paisa.

Initially, coffee faced opposition from the Brahmins due to its British origin and the inclusion of sugar, which was seen as foreign and impure. Over time, coffee gained popularity as a beverage among Tamil Brahmins and the upper-middle class in Tamil Nadu.

And by the 20th century, filter kaapi had become an entrenched tradition in the Tamil Brahmin households and almost a way of creating a barrier with lower classes and castes, according to A. R. Venkatachalapathy, an Indian historian, author, and translator who wrote the book 'In Those Days There Was No Coffee'.

Filter kaapi, favoured in South India, features a milder, less concentrated, and less bitter flavour. It's made using a perforated metal or cloth filter, which allows for a slow drip. The Tamil Brahmins introduced the distinct practise of drinking filter coffee from a cup-saucer combination known as the "davara tumbler."

"For starters, filter coffee was always a drink of the elite. Tea was more common among the wider population. The tumbler is designed in such a way that you can drink the coffee without touching the metal to your mouth, a requirement that orthodox brahmins had as a result of all those complex rules of echil, patthu, etc. when it came to food," says Krish Ashok, author of Masala Lab: The Science Of Indian Cooking.

These metal tumblers and wide saucers, typically made of brass or steel, featured rims and were curved on the edges, unlike the rimless ones used in North India. Many coffee shops, restaurants, and households still use tumblers and davaras to serve coffee in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

It is believed that each person consumed at least three cups of coffee a day in Tamil households, and guests visiting a Brahmin household would be served coffee at any time, almost as a mandatory custom. The process of making filter kaapi involves meticulous stages like selecting quality beans, achieving precise decoction density, and adding warm milk to achieve the perfect sepia colour. Sugar is added in moderation to balance bitterness without introducing excessive sweetness.

Coffee would be consumed from the tumbler, which is cooled using the davara, a wide metal saucer. The process involves pouring the coffee back and forth between the davara and tumbler in sweeping motions. This not only mixes the ingredients thoroughly, ensuring a consistent blend of flavours, but also cools the hot coffee to a suitable sipping temperature.

Interestingly, the tradition of drinking coffee this way has its roots in caste and class distinctions. In the past, lower castes and classes could not drink from the cup as it was believed to pollute it. Hence, they sipped coffee from davara, or saucers. This custom also extended to tea, where individuals would hold both the teacup and saucer, sipping the tea from the saucer.

Krish Ashok says, "Echil (saliva) and patthu (things that spoil easily) are a bunch of obsolete food-related practices among brahmins that date back to a pre-modern era without refrigeration and preservation technologies. So the idea behind echil is that food that has directly come into contact with someone's mouth is considered polluted and is thus unfit to be served to anyone else. They don't directly relate to any specific form of discrimination against other castes."

Furthermore, the design of the Davara tumbler served another purpose. During a transitional period between tradition and modernity, Tamil Brahmins maintained notions of purity and untouchability.

As per their caste hierarchy, physical or material contact with lower-caste individuals was to be avoided to prevent contamination or pollution by the higher caste. When serving coffee to guests of unknown caste, the unique design of the davara tumbler allowed for drinking coffee without sipping, ensuring that the guest's lips did not touch the cup, thereby preserving middle-class hospitality and avoiding caste pollution.

Coffee hotels or coffee clubs, primarily run by Brahmins, played a significant role in the institutionalisation of coffee in Tamil society from the 1920s to the 1950s. These establishments served coffee, not tea, and contributed to breaking down caste barriers, albeit with caste-specific sections. However, over time, coffee became a drink associated with the elite Brahmin class due to its cost.

"Most first-generation restaurants used to be called Brahmin's coffee houses to indicate that the cooking staff were all Brahmin. And even Udupi restaurants had separate dining rooms for brahmins until post-independence. The Davara design was for Brahmins to drink coffee without touching their lips. They did that in their own homes as well, not just in restaurants, which orthodox people rarely frequented anyway back in the day," says Krish Ashok.

As India's constitution abolished caste-based discrimination, leaders like Periyar launched campaigns to remove caste-related adjectives from the names of hotel establishments. This transformation was part of a broader effort to eliminate the lingering traces of the caste system from daily life.

Nowadays, most of us may be fascinated by drinking coffee from a tumbler-davara set, considering it a traditional coffee-drinking experience. And we might even go to the length of overpaying to buy or gift a set of brass tumbler and davara to our loved ones without being aware of the historical aspect of this cutlery design.

"My mother had her own tumbler and davara to drink coffee. She packed it and carried it in her luggage while travelling on holidays as well. She would be particular about having her morning coffee from her own tumbler set," says Mridani Thiyagarajan, a yoga therapist in Bengaluru.

When asked about the practise of tilting the neck and pouring filter kaapi directly to the throats from a distance to drink it, Vijayalakshmi Vikram, a vegan blogger and social media influencer, says, "I don't have much knowledge about it, except that the rim was designed to allow drinking without sipping. I've seen some very traditional elderly individuals do it, but it's not a common practise among the current generation. In my circles, I haven't observed anyone from my generation attempting it."

In essence, the practice of drinking coffee in South India, with its unique vessels and rituals, is a reflection of the region's complex history, culture, caste dynamics, and social evolution.