South Indian Filter Coffee Tastes Like Home and Empire
For me, longing for filter coffee and missing my father are one and the same.
The parameters within which filter coffee exists are specific and precise. I asked my friends and family, people from different castes and times and parts of South India, what kind of coffee they bought. Whether they were Tamil Brahmins like me, Telugu city dwellers, or any root in between, their answers were the same: peaberry coffee or Narasu’s coffee. The brand matters. The temperature matters—drinking it iced would be an abomination, and to this day, I can’t really stomach an iced coffee. The size of the thing matters—my aunt finds the large portions of coffee you can order at Starbucks absolutely absurd, and my father’s friend Narayan Uncle thinks they’re nothing more than vats of “brown swill.” If the size or brand or temperature is off at all, it’s no longerfilter coffee. Purists will go even further—it has to be in a tumbler, it has to have chicory, so on and so forth—but most everyone agrees on what it is and, crucially, what it is not. The commonality of filter coffee binds many South Indians together. “You’d think it was our birthright,” Narayan Uncle commented.
Except it’s not. Coffee is not native to India. The first coffee beanswere thought to have been brought to India in the sixteenth century by the Sufi monk Baba Budan, but coffee didn’t take off in India until the British came. They saw South India’s fertile, tropical earth as the perfect place to grow the crop in industrial quantities, so in the late eighteenth century, they ramped up production of coffee in the region. By the early 1900s, South Indians were consuming the fruits of their labor.Replacing kanji, the rice water that had traditionally been the breakfast of Tamils, a morning coffee, or two, or three, quickly became a cultural staple.
The transition was by no means smooth, however. Something of a moral panic ensued. Traditionalists worried that coffee was corrupting the people, the purity of the women, the sanctity of our heritage—you name it. In “In Those Days There Was No Coffee,” the Tamil historian A. R. Venkatachalapathy documents the various cultural anxieties that permeated as coffee consumption took off. Venkatachalapathy cites writers who compared coffee to alcohol, correspondents who decried its effects on women’s mothering, and nationalists who damned its Western origins. While I find the first two arguments to be almost comedic, the third gives me pause.
I don’t think these naysayers were wrong to be worried about Western dilution of the Indian way of life. It bothers me to realize that coffee is not rooted in our people’s ancient traditions, but rather in our people’s recent subjugation. That thought didn’t bother the majority of Tamil coffee drinkers, however. By the 1930s, coffee consumption was a way of life in Tamilnadu, nationalism be damned.
Everyone I interviewed for this piece described themselves as a passionate filter-coffee enthusiast. Not one of them knew this history—that coffee, rather than being a traditional part of our lives, was instead a colonial creation. This fact is not widely discussed today, and to be blunt, it feels like no one cares. I never much cared either, until I started writing this piece. There’s so much to be gained in digging but so much pain to be found as well. I felt a bit guilty passing that pain on to my interviewees, honestly. I wanted them to keep the pure, glowing image of filter coffee that I’d had before starting this research. But most of my interviewees were relatively unbothered by the history we unearthed. The colonial history of coffee can be irrelevant to some Indian coffee drinkers, because the British themselves are becoming irrelevant to a powerful India. Perhaps this is what it means to be truly postcolonial, truly post the colonizer.
But to my eyes, the legacy of the British empire lives on in our lives. The British are not just the reason that filter coffee is consumed in India. Their colonial legacy created the Indian diaspora. Today Indian immigrants in America are often thought of as highly educated tech workers—H-1B visa holders, the privileged and the brilliant. But the Indian diaspora is the single largest cultural diaspora in the world, and that is not because of the purview of the IT industry. The British pushed Indians outside of India through forced migration, indentures, and trafficking. That’s how Indians ended up in the Caribbean, in Australia, across the oceans and beyond the seas. Then, once we thought ourselves free of the British, our postcolonial ties drew Indians across the Commonwealth—to Britain itself, yes, but to Canada as well. Erika Lee brilliantly recounts this diasporic flow in her seminal work, The Making of Asian America.
Perhaps this is what it means to be truly postcolonial, truly post the colonizer.
During the Indian independence movement in the early 1900s, the British worked with the Americans to keep Indians out of the US, because Indian Americans were fomenting the cause of Indian independence at home. But with Indian independence came the need for America to loosen its immigration restrictions on the citizens of a key allied nation, leading to first the passage of the Luce-Celler Act and then, twenty years later, the Hart-Celler Act of 1965, which opened the doors to true Indian immigration into this country. That’s how my family was able to leave India—once India was strong enough and Britain weak enough to change the calculus for American policymakers. The rise and fall of the British Empire, during and after colonialism, has directly shaped the diaspora today—where we live, how we live, and the drinks that give us life.
Of course, we don’t indulge in filter coffee out of historical curiosity. South Indians abroad make and drink filter coffee because, in my father’s words, “it makes me happy.” But making filter coffee is a time-intensive process. In the hustle and grind of an immigrant life, you don’t have time to make it every day. Filter coffee becomes a treat for those in the diaspora. When my father was a young immigrant living in Houston in the ’90s, he would visit the homes of slightly better-off Indians on Sundays, where all the South Indians in the area would gather to drink the filter coffee made by the one uncle who owned a filter. Immigrants here in the US can get cheaper coffee from McDonald’s, faster coffee from Starbucks—but it’s only filter coffee, laborious as it is, that reminds them of home.
I fit into that trope too. I haven’t made filter coffee in years, not since my life got busy, my mornings became full, my sleep dwindled and the pandemic wore me down. Now I make my morning coffee in a cheap red Cuisinart that I got for free off of my American friend’s grandfather. But that coffee doesn’t remind me of anything except my own exhaustion. It doesn’t mean what filter coffee would mean to me. Filter coffee would connect me to home; this American coffee just pushes me out the door.
What is the home our diaspora longs for? In America, many of my parent’s generation imagine an India where their grandmothers rose every morning to freshly grind the coffee, where the milkman came by to deliver fresh milk and the 6 a.m. decoction got everyone out the door. That India, in the way my parents remember it, doesn’t exist anymore. Most of my generation in India isn’t regularly hankering for filter coffee. They’re excited to go to Café Coffee Day (India’s Starbucks, if you will). And for myself, I miss the home where my father made filter coffee every morning. But even he doesn’t have the time to make it anymore. He uses an espresso machine in real life, just not in my memory. Filter coffee is not a regular habit, it’s a one-off dream of the good old days.
There is no imagination of the good old days that is ever true to life, and our nostalgia is no exception. There are immigrants in the diaspora who yearn for the home that doesn’t exist, and there are many Indians actually in India who are nostalgic for a past that never existed. Why do some of us miss it so much? Our grandparents were second-class citizens of the British Empire. How could anyone long for that?
There are the worrying answers to these questions. I have not delved into the casteist history of filter coffee here. As an erstwhile foreign Brahmin with a poor understanding of caste, I’m not the best person to lay it all out. Yet it’s not lost on me that filter coffee is not just the quintessential South Indian drink—it’s the quintessential Tamil Brahmin drink. The coffee houses were Brahmin coffee houses. The tumbler is a Brahmin invention. The curved lip of the cup, some say, was created so that Brahmins could avoid caste pollution. Are Brahmins, in their nostalgia for filter coffee, just yearning for the time when their caste status translated to actual power?
I find this answer overly simplistic and too harsh to the people I love. There is some truth to it, I’m sure, but I don’t think it’s the underlying driver of the longing I hear when my loved ones tell me about their filter coffee. Perhaps it drives their longing, in place of what other Indians long for instead. I can only speak to the love of those I know. Nostalgia is a potent political force, of course, but we don’t drink filter coffee to rally the troops. We drink it for the aroma, for the flavor, and for the sepia-colored memories it lets us breathe in, for a moment.
A few days after our conversations, a package from North Georgia arrived on my doorstep—a repurposed shoebox, covered in what looked like several pounds of packing tape. In my memories, my father is always making filter coffee in a kitchen in Utah, but in real life, that’s not where their mail comes from now. Under all the tape on the shoebox, I found a large bag of Narasu’s filter-coffee powder and a proper-sized coffee filter—not the tiny one my father sent me off to graduate school with, but one meant to brew coffee for a family. It’s still sitting on my counter. I feel hesitant to use it, although my mother keeps urging me to. I feel a sense of reverence toward the thing, which I’m sure my father would laugh at. Or maybe he wouldn’t.
A somber, faraway look came over my father’s face when I asked him about his earliest memory of coffee. “Freshly ground coffee is like tobacco. It has got a strong smell that won’t leave you,” he said. “And so the smell—people tell you, you know, memories, sometimes memories are just smells. I don’t actually remember the act of grinding the coffee. I don’t even remember my grandmother’s face in the kitchen. What I remember most of all is the smell.”
I listen, and I am forced to remember my father’s age. He is no longer young, and his grandmother—she has long since left this world. Her coffee is not just his memory—it is long enough ago that it is my history too. The colonial history, the casteist history, the history of oppression—it’s all there, dripping through the coffee filter like so many drops of blood.
But our loved ones gave us our coffee filters. They made us happy, and we miss them. So we drink to them.