Food, for me, was Tamil Brahmin cuisine for a very long time. In my family, the people who claimed that they were not very rigorous about their food preferences only meant that they even ate Bisibelebaat or Palakkad cuisine sometimes. In this milieu, I felt like a radical extremist since I enjoyed 'north Indian' food and was even willing to go without rice for a couple of meals. If you are younger than 30, I must tell you that this was a huge step for a Tam in the seventies. Of course I have written about this before.

And then I boarded a Pan Am flight in 1986 for my first ever trip abroad lasting two and a half months. Just the American accent was enough to intimidate me those days; it was worse because on this flight, for the leg till Frankfurt, the flight attendants were mostly European. They hardly smiled, spoke English like German and looked like they would throw you out of the window if they didn't like you. And it was pretty clear they didn't like anyone on this flight full of noisy, unruly Indians. Seated next to me was a couple from Gujarat . They seemed like seasoned travelers. At meal time they were served an Indian meal while everything on my plate looked unfamiliar except large leaves of cabbage (actually lettuce). I couldn't believe that this passed off as lunch in any language. I timidly requested the flight attendant for the same meal as the Gujarati couple.
'Sorry ma'm, it's all we 've got.'
My travel agent had missed to mention my meal preference!

I did not realize that this was just the beginning of the horror story until I had to suffer meal after meal of burger (with the meat removed), French fries and coleslaw on the days we traveled. I had a choice of staying in the apartment and having rice with baked beans or yoghurt or stay hungry and travel. We traveled and took pictures before every monument and tourist attraction until finally I was happy to come back home to proper meals. No wonder I only have hazy memories of that trip and don't recognize the monuments I am standing in front of.

Twenty years later I traveled again to this country and this time it was all very different. I was prepared to try exotic food ( as long as it had no meat) and they served me Pulao and Rajma for dinner and idli and upma for breakfast on a Lufthansa flight. In Seattle I stayed with my cousin who made sure that there was Sambar and curried vegetable at every meal. When we went out we ate at Udupi restaurants serving Puri/bhaji and Masala Dosa!
Thanks to the IT revolution and Y2k problem in no small measure I suppose! India had arrived - it was now a real country with real people and real food and not just some land of sadhus and snakes, where people had OM for breakfast and meditated! Airlines cared for the Indian traveler and his meal preferences. You didn't have to suffer Air India just for their food. You could buy and make Indian food right here -it was available and affordable.

But still there was one thing that I missed - Tea. Starbucks had one type of sweet tea and in the tearooms we were presented with a menu of several choices of herbal, green and black teas. While they had great snob value and assured ego-satisfaction, all I craved for was a nice Masala Chai. I was even willing to try Coffee with little luck. Yes, in the land of Starbucks we missed COFFEE - South Indian coffee. Starbucks gave us choices like we never had before and they were willing to make it all just the way we wanted. Only we didn't want any of it because they were either too strong or too watery, or too frothy or too hot. In every case it was too much - even the smallest cup ( whose idea was it to call a small cup 'tall'?) was a lot and we always ended up wasting more than half. Something was missing and it did not feel like the coffee back home even when we picked up coffee powder from the Indian shop. May be the chicory content.

How do the South Indians manage without their daily dose of South Indian Filter coffee, I wondered. My cousin did not care for coffee or tea but I am sure that is not the case with the other million or two out there. You can take a Tamilian or a Kannadiga to Starbucks but you cannot make him drink the coffee for sure? Or had they resigned to their fate, admitted defeat and prepared their palates to an acquired taste for one or other of the Starbucks coffee? Or were they getting their coffee supplies from India regularly? It was a mystery till the time I boarded the flight back to Bangalore and I made mental note to pack a few boxes of Lipton tea if I traveled to this country again.

Last month I was packing again to come to this country when my son asked me to get a coffee filter. He said he was tired of Starbucks coffee and wanted ‘our coffee’ in the mornings. So I asked him if he wanted some coffee powder too. He said “No. My friend Soundari has experimented with the coffee available here and discovered that a combination of Ethiopian Sidamo and Sumatra coffee (1:1)from Starbucks ground to a fine blend ("Turkish" grind for electric filter) tastes exactly like the coffee you get in Chennai.’
JUGAD, wow! I should have known – the true Indian spirit! I should have guessed!
And to answer your question, yes she is right. I even wrote this post while sipping on a strong cup of the blend that tastes just like the 'one shtrong filter kaapi' at my local SLV restaurant. Thank you Soundari.
So what is your favorite blend to get your coffee just the way your mom makes it?
57 Responses
  1. Anonymous Says:

    Talk to you later, let me go buy those blends. thank u Soundari!
    I will drink Starbucks(TINA factor)coffee. Cant stand the chai tea latte, I will make my own at home, thank you.


  2. Doli Says:

    hehehe :) I thought I was the only one who didnt drink coffee nor tea in the Starbucks/Dunkin Donuts land :)

    I hated the coffee and tea here and craved for home coffee or tea. I have sort of compromised now with having Hot Chocolate with whipped cream while going out ...

    I got a filter too from India to make coffee :) I ll try the blend that Soundari suggested. What is the proportion to mix?

  3. Usha Says:

    Anon:Jai ho!

    Doli: I knew it, I knew it. There must be so many of my soul sistahs out there. Equal quantities but adjust for your taste.

  4. DotThoughts Says:

    And thank you! Am off to s'bucks to get the coffees to make blends because a decade of starbucks every morning, and I still crave the south indian coffee!

  5. Laksh Says:

    The kind of post that really makes me want to go home and brew a strong kaapi right now!

    I've gotten used to Folgers Columbian Roast (Medium). I use a regular filter from madras, just that I pack it well with 3 spoons of coffee powder to get one cup of good coffee.

    I also found that organic milk tastes close to milk at home.

  6. Usha Says:

    Dot: and if you do not have a south Indain filter try the vietnamese one. For one or two cups it is great and fast. If you are using an electric one get it ground accordingly.(Turkish blend is what my son said I think.)

    Laksh: alright, will try it next time. This blend needs one spoon per cup and is real shhhtrong. So organic milk it is!

  7. Sands Says:

    i can relate to the tea part. Born and raised a tam bram, I have never head coffee. But when I step out of the house, I do crave a good cuppa masala tea. Still waiting for someone to take up that business opportunity :)

  8. Altoid Says:

    Coming from a very coffee-addicted tam bram family, I think, over these years, I have weaned- just because of the fact that nothing comes close to the filter kaapi from back home. Once I got a place of my own, I bought a stainless steel filter from back home and I buy a stock of kaapi podi from India, it sits in my freezer(to keep it fresh) and whenever I feel like having some nostalgic filter kaapi, I make myself one or two servings- in authentic tumbler-dabara style!

    Now that the parents are here, they've come stocked with enough for their trip. But thanks for this tip, it will definitely come in handy!

  9. Vasu Says:

    ooh thank you thank you thank you.I have been tying out so many diff coffee powders to get that elusive filter coffee it equal ratios of both the powders?

  10. Unknown Says:

    If you think this equal proportion of ethiopian sidamo/sumatra is pricey, please try this one - Kirkland House blend(Green color bag) available at Costco - this is pretty good too - Don't forget turkish grind for our Indian filters -- My appa/amma have stopped mailing me Leo Coffee....


  11. Unknown Says:
    This comment has been removed by the author.

  12. Unknown Says:

    For my tea loving friends, please try "Might Leaf" brand ( for the best flavor and relaxation... Enjoy friends!!!

  13. Blogeswari Says:

    Ah... lovely post

    Namma ooru kaapi powder smells gooooood but saari am one number tea drinker

  14. AnjuGandhi Says:

    India has definetly arrived. Anywhere in this world you will find Indian resturants, Indian stores.
    And its also true that nothing can beat our masala tea
    I cannot make myself drink the boiled water and dip dip tea

  15. Monika Says:

    oh as i read this i am sipping away fresh strong coorg filter kappi made by mil who makes it truly divine :)

    and with tea its all the way the tea that dad makes with a little bit of ginger nothing nothing at all can beat that tea

  16. Artnavy Says:

    not too much into tea or coffee

    but i like pure peaberry- no chicory or plantation from pandian coffee in T(ea) nagar!!

    and tea the pucca desi style with masala and ginger

    the kashmiri one with anise is also nice for a change

  17. Mom is a decoction kaapi addict! Makes it super and drinks it too...While on our shopping jaunts, she longs for her coffee come 4.30 pm. and sometimes I con her into trying out the Cafe Coffee Days.... she sniffs and looks at it disdainfully and says 'ee mannankattikky avaru chodikkunna paisa!!' and snorts at the guys behind the counter!!

    Me like Mom's filter coffee, but since the husband is a tea freak, I make tea at home. I like neither, cos I hate the taste of milk.

  18. Anonymous Says:

    Thank you and Thank you Soundari. I live in UK but I too search for that elusive kaapi experience once in a while. Thanks once again for sharing the mystery blend.


  19. diya Says:

    saved quite a few lives out there didn't ya , Usha, ingenius I must say. Going to make myself a huge cup of dajeeling tea just now...cheers!

  20. Baidik Says:
    This comment has been removed by the author.

  21. Baidik Says:

    I chanced upon your blog from Maami's a few days back and whatta ride its been so far!

    Being the Bong I am I've never quite 'grasped' Coffee in all its avataar's. Milky Sugary Tea it is for me. Naa student aa irukurchey I once remember blowing my lunch allowance on 'Darjeeling' at a tony Tea pub. It was hot colored water from what my kid taste buds could make. "While they had great snob value and assured ego-satisfaction, all I craved for was a nice Masala Chai". Succinct :-)

  22. Vidya Says:

    Ah, this post brings back so many memories. My family immigrated into the 'States more than ten years ago - and we still have not relinquished our strong kaapi/chai addiction. So much so, in fact, that my parents have successfully escaped having to drink American coffee by importing traditional, south Indian filter kaapi mix from India, and have not accepted the automated coffee maker, they still prefer the regular drip filter. And I've been spoiled, I'm afraid - now, nothing but a strong cup of kaapi will do!

    And I entirely agree with your first paragraph - I don't think my parents have forgiven me for having given up rice and switching over entirely to the roti side yet :)

    And talking about a cultural mix - a Saravana Bhavan recently opened near my home!

  23. Anonymous Says:

    Nice post, as always. Here is a little trick - next time you get stranded at starbucks. Order 2 shots of espresso and small cup of steamed milk. Mix them both with sugar/splenda to your perfect 'shtrong kaapi'


  24. shilpa Says:

    Oh my god Thanks so much! I am going to get my blends this weekend and will let you know how it goes!
    Thanks a ton, are a sweetheart!

  25. Anonymous Says:

    Another tambram from a coffee-addicted family checking in (I hate coffee myself, being a tea person :-)) - but parents and ILs have done extensive research and claim this works:

    - S.Indian filter - get one with extra small holes, you may need to get the store to special order one, usual "Readymade" ones have too-large holes acc. to my FIL.
    - A blend of Starbucks House blend beans and Costco brand Columbian coffee beans - if you're lucky, you can get Costco to roast their beans right there, grind to Turkish coffee levels, then grind again just before use, in a small coffee grinder or blender.
    - if you have a Central Market, you can buy Mysore coffee beans there.
    - Chicory - for those who need it, is available in Whole Foods and Central Market - my parents need it, my ILs don't. You roast it at home in a tava, grind it with the coffee :-)

    Will find out what exactly they order in S'bucks - they've got the order actually written down, as the combination of their accents and the complications of the order makes it somewhat of a process!


  26. buddy Says:

    Thanks for the tip! I sorely miss filter coffee in America.

    nice post!

  27. WOW !! Usha ... thanks to your post, I now know how to get South Indian Coffee here in the US ! ..

  28. I can so identify with your longing for masala chai and south indian filter coffee in the land of Starbucks...

    Though not originally from the southern part of the country, I have spent enough time in Trichy and Bangalore to get addicted to that variety of coffee...unfortunately have to make do with Sunrise premium here
    :-), a poor substitute for filter coffee, while hubby dear relishes coffee made the American way ;-)

  29. Anamika Says:

    My parents approve the Caramel Macchiato. They get one tall and share it.
    We are tea drinkers and have Darjeeling tea for the most part at home so I dont really miss masala tea but I enjoy it once in a while. Starbucks has a chai tea latte which has the tea masala smell that I once tried. Didnt like it one bit.

  30. Anonymous Says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed your post!!

    >My travel agent had missed to mention my meal preference!

    LOL! It happens to me all the time.This time they served me vegan food!!!.Never in my wildest dream would I expect to eat such crap.

    >I was prepared to try exotic food
    >When we went out we ate at Udupi restaurants serving Puri/bhaji and Masala Dosa!

    Hahaha!!!So true!When I want to eat Italian,Mexican or Thai food,ppl take me to Indian restaurants!!!.Thank god,atleast my daughter doesn't do that!!

    Enjoy shtrong filter Kaapi!!!No luck this time.I must get a coffee filter in my next trip to make your shtrong filter kaapi.Should be happy with whatever Starbucks serve in their smallest 'tall' cup!!


  31. Serendipity Says:

    I add 3 spoons Nayak's powder+2 spoons hearth room blend
    :) Whatte fun hug hug!

  32. aMus Says:

    that tip is going to come handy esp. when my parents go visit my sis in mom is a kaapi addict and cannot...will not do without her morning kappa :)

  33. shalini Says:
    This comment has been removed by the author.

  34. shalini Says:

    After avery long time. But been reading regularly.
    A confirmed tea addict turning the other way round?
    After your ode to tea I cannot imagine you with a morning cup of coffee.


  35. shalini Says:

    Sorry for the double entry. Will be more careful from now.

  36. Vinita Says:

    Hi Usha,
    Are U still in chicago? the indian stores have packaged masala chai which tasted just like home made masala chai. It has sugar milk powder tea and masala blend. Just add water . I am a tea drinker and they are great.

    How long are you going to be in this area?

  37. dipali Says:

    Such a relief knowing that you have finally got good coffee in Umreeka:)

  38. Art Says:

    You do get the proper filter coffee powder in Indian stores too.. like Green Label, Kothas...

    Ofcourse the usual coffee filter is yet to arrive :)

  39. Hip Grandma Says:

    i agree.were it my mamahe'd have gone into depression in this country.i am just waiting to get back to india and my filter coffee prepared the way my husband does.the filter coffee that my daughter makes does not taste quite the same.will ask her to try soundari's recomendation.

  40. Usha Says:

    Sands:One nice Teakada ( served in tall glasses)in every American town - wow, what a dream it would be!

    Altoid:Oh the extent to which we go for that one nice cuppa - the way mom makes it! Now you have mom to make it too -Enjoi

    Vasudha: yes, Equal but you can adjust for your taste in future blends. See soundari's additional recommendations below. :)

    Soundari; Thank you again - and wow, you have tried them all haven't you? You need to write a small handbook for FOBs struggling to find the flavors of India here. :)

    Blogeswari:Thank you. Me too one number Tea drinker of many cups per day. If it was England I might have gone about looking for the ideal cup of tea but this being Starbucks land I settled for coffee.

    Anju:Yes. You get them all here

    Monika: Did you have to mention that Ginger tea - now I am having withdrawal symptoms. The good news is that I will be there on Tuesday and I can have all the Masala Tea I want.

    Artnavy:Yes, yes and Yes - love them all.

    JLT:Oh yes how can you blame her for wanting coffe att 4:30. Coffee/ tea were created for that hour!
    LOL @ ee mannankattikky avaru chodikkunna paisa!!'
    I am with her!

    Gayatri: All the best!

    Diya: hehehe. Could you have another cup for me please!

    Baidik: Welcome, thank you. If you are form Bengal why would you even think of have green gold there in all its glory!

    Vidya:Today it is possible to have it all everywhere. I have no inclination to shop when I travel these days. Doesn't make sense to carry stuff when you can get them all right there. If only I could take some of these roads or clean air!

    Mullai: Will do at the airport tomorrow. I wonder if Starbucks will ever open shop in India!

    Shilpa: I hope you like it. Thank you.

    Anon: Wow, I like the spirit. Why compromise on coffee when you can get it the way you want it!

    Buddy: I hope you get your satisfaction from one of the many suggestions in this thread.

    C.A. : Enjoy! Enjoy!

    Priyanka: Now you know how to get it right here. Even if you dont brew it at home that suggestion about two shots of expresso with steamed milk at Starbucks should help you!

    Anamika: Yes I don not like that chai latte either.

    Nirmala: Vegan food - wonder what it has!
    You can get the equivalent of our filter right here - a vietnamese one. Mail order.

    Seren; Hearth room blend a ? enamma idu? Nayak kopamadukolthare!
    Trip hegidhe - mast majaa na?

    Suma: Check out the comments for other suggestions too if the Starbucks blend is too strong for her.

    Shalini:Hiiiiiii, How have you been!
    Oh yes, my loyalty is still with Tea.
    This is just a search for decent coffee as I have given up hopes of decent tea here.

    Vinita: It is not just the tea powder. I think the milk tastes different here. and that makes it different too.
    I am leaving tomorrow.

    Dipali: Hehehe. Whatodo we are like this only na!

    Art: I saw some of those brands too in Devon but you know = back home folks like to go to the shop and order our mix of beans, texture of grind and percentage of chicory who can never be satisfied with something straight out of a packet?
    The vietnamese filter that you get here is just the same as the South Indian filter- only the shape is different! And it is quicker and more efficient for single and double cups. I use one in Bengaluru and asked my son to get one here too.

    Hipgran:I completely understand. Talk to you in India. :)

  41. Anonymous Says:

    absolutely 'Mom made' and 'Home made' Kappi for me..

    though i do like other coffies too but mornings need to be filled with the Filter Kaapi.. :-)

  42. Cee Kay Says:

    You are here in the US?? Where??????

  43. Sumana Says:

    wonderful wonderful post Usha. I often used to wonder when i went shopping with my tamil / south indian friends who hand picked the right varieties of coffee beans and got them powdered in meijer/Dominicks etc. My parents / inlaws proved it right when they came over. They started to get the coffee powder and filter on their trips and somehow barely manage on the flight.Glad you got the right tasting coffee. I am more a tea person and liked starbucks taazo chai.

  44. Unknown Says:

    You should try Dunkin Donuts coffee the next time you are here...delish and most satisfying!

  45. Anonymous Says:

    Here's wat I think is the closest to our good ol filter kaapi. A coffe misto at starbucks (This is usually not on their list, a frnd of mine discovered that starbucks serves this ). I usually ask for extra hot extra foam that adds to the desi touch of 'norai' on top :)

  46. Very similar experiences, when I first flew into NZ in 1998. But now,we get nice Mysore coffee beans, ground to suit our filter, in Wellington (the coffee capital).

  47. Divs Says:

    I checked your blog after a long time but I must say, its as crisp as I left it last time.. I loved the post :)

  48. Pavitra Says:

    Hi Usha, rightly said. Your post inspired me to write about what we call FDC (Fresh Decoction Coffee). I have just started blogging, again inspired by posts from the likes of amazing bloggers like you :)

  49. shoba Says:

    I am neither a coffer nor a tea drinker, but had to hunt for good coffee everywhere when my parents visited us.My in-laws prefer the espresso shot,with steamed milk from Starbucks. I would have to note down this blend for their next visit.

  50. Mama - Mia Says:

    Usha, i dont think any desis enjoy Starbucks coffee! M travels often to US(he is a true blue north indian) and he craves for decent chai coffee! so now he carries his bru / nescafe and tea ka packet whenever he travels! :)

    we dont know to make a good filter coffee, but chicory mixed bru also apparently does better than Starbucks!! :D

    lovely post! hope you enjoying you stay!



  51. maami Says:

    Duh! Dunno what to say about kaapi (Sipping one cup Darjeeling, first flush, pinkie out)

  52. Nazgul Says:

    Neat post. I was going to blog on the exact same topic. I have a kaapi filter from home and I get narsus coffee powder here at the indian store... otherwise i too had worked out a combo similar to what you had mentioned..

    must have been really difficult for u guys to have travelled to the US back then..

  53. ekta khetan Says:

    I love filter coffee and the simple beaten up coffee thing…Quite a coffee"licious" blog…I must suggest to my bhabhi who is another beautiful tam brahmin fro chennai!

  54. Anonymous Says:

    You should have tried Dunkin Donuts coffee. Its tastes close to South Indian least one can have it when the cravings for Indian coffee are high.


  55. Ranjani Says:

    Cafe Du Mond coffee is pretty close too...has a high percentage of chicory!

  56. Send flowers Says:

    Coffee contains caffeine, which acts as a refreshment. For this reason, it is often consumed in the morning and when i feeling tired.
    Buy flowers online

  57. Anonymous Says:


    We use Mayorga dark roast from Costco, use the mill to powderit fine and use it in our espresso machine.
    Bliss in the morning, my Mama makes it fine.
    Bless him. After mytrip to India I got Vivekananda coffee powder that my sister got me and it is great too.