While countries like Brazil, Colombia, and Ethiopia often take the limelight when it comes to coffee production, the aromatic allure of Indian filter coffee is a story that has been brewing for centuries. Surprisingly underrated yet deeply ingrained in the Indian cultural tapestry, filter coffee has traveled through time and circumstance to capture the hearts of millions in the subcontinent. Today, let’s delve into the intriguing tale of how filter coffee arrived in India and how it has become an integral part of its culinary and social landscape.
The Legend of Baba Budan: The Smuggler Saint
When tracing the origins of coffee in India, all roads lead to a charismatic Sufi named Baba Budan. On a pilgrimage to Mecca during the 16th century, Baba Budan found himself enamored by the rich aroma and unique taste of coffee in the port city of Mocha in Yemen. Determined to bring this novel beverage to his homeland, he ingeniously smuggled seven precious coffee beans by concealing them in his underwear.
Upon his return to India, Baba Budan planted these smuggled seeds on the slopes of the Chandragiri Hills in Chickmagalur, in present-day Karnataka. Little did he know, he was laying down the roots of a cultural phenomenon. These hills were later named Baba Budan Hills in his honor. It’s an amusing yet inspiring tale to think that the filter coffee savored across India today traces its ancestry back to the beans that journeyed across seas in Baba Budan’s undergarments.
The Colonial Chapter: Early Accounts and Coffee Houses
Enter Rev. Edward Terry, a chaplain to Sir Thomas Roe, an ambassador in the court of Emperor Jehangir. In 1616, Terry described the Indian populace’s brewing and consumption habits of coffee, stating:
“many of the people there (in India), who are strict in their religion, drink no wine at all; but they use a liquor, more wholesome than pleasant, they call coffee, made by a black seed boiled in water, which turns it almost into the same color but does very little alter the taste of the water. Notwithstanding, it is perfect to help digestion, to quicken the spirits, and to cleanse the blood.”
Fast forward to the aftermath of the Battle of Plassey in 1780, and we find India’s first coffee house opening its doors in Calcutta. Entrepreneurs John Jackson and Cottrell Barrett followed suit by establishing the original Madras Coffee House in 1792. Their innovative approach included maintaining a maritime log and offering newspapers for their customers, drawing inspiration from the famed Lloyd’s Coffee House in London. These coffee houses often charged an exorbitant one rupee for a single dish of coffee but sweetened the deal by offering free use of billiard tables.
Mid-century Surge: The Role of Indian Coffee Houses
The explosion of filter coffee’s popularity in India can be partly attributed to the Coffee Board of India’s initiative during the mid-1940s. The India Coffee Houses they established not only served this invigorating brew but also became the nucleus of intellectual and cultural discussions. The emergence of more popular Indian Coffee Houses in the mid-1950s democratized filter coffee, bringing it into the daily lives of millions of Indians across social strata.
The Modern Brew
Today, filter coffee is an unmissable feature of South Indian households and restaurants. Brewed meticulously with a metal filter, and usually served with a generous amount of fresh, sweetened milk in iconic steel cups, filter coffee has come a long way. The robust blend, often mixed with chicory, provides a flavor profile that is uniquely Indian, much like the history it carries.
Filter coffee in India is not just a beverage; it’s a storytelling medium, encapsulating centuries of tradition, innovation, and a bit of rebellious ingenuity. Whether you enjoy it as a morning ritual, an evening delight, or simply as an indulgent treat, remember that every sip connects you to a vibrant historical tapestry stretching from the Arabian ports to the hilltops of Chickmagalur. So the next time you sip on a cup of this aromatic brew, take a moment to savor not just its flavor but also the rich history it encapsulates.