Chennai’s Kaapiright? – The true origins of coffee

The sun may rise in Chennai, when it will, but morning only arrives with the first whiff of coffee. Chennai’s affair with filter coffee or Kaapi is old news. Tamilians met coffee somewhere around the 19th century, fell head over heels and have stayed very much in love since.

The mighty bean, despite what some coffee lovers will tell you, is not indigenous to India. It travelled miles over land and sea before reaching Indian shores. It all started in Ethiopia in ancient coffee forests.  But who one earth thought brewing the red beans was a good idea? The local legends credit a goatherd called Kaldi for the feat. But really it was his goats.

Goats as you know, will chew through anything. Kaldi found that his goats refused to go to bed and made a lot of mischief on the nights they had grazed on certain red beans. Off Kaldi went to the local monastery to report this strange behaviour to the abbot. The abbot brewed the beans and drank the concoction, all in the name of science. He couldn’t sleep that night. The next morning all the monks in the monastery were told about the wonders of what would later be called caffeine.

News of the beans spread beyond Africa, all the way to Yemen in the Arabian Peninsula. By the 15th century coffee was being cultivated in the highlands of Yemen. Sufi mystics struck by coffee love, sipped copious amounts of it, chanting longer prayers to God than they could previously manage. The Arabic name given to the brew was qahwa which today has morphed into the English word coffee.

By the early 16th century, Yemen was producing enough coffee for export. Shipments of baked or powdered coffee beans were sent far and wide, from the Yemeni port town of Mocha. Soon, coffee from Mocha would travel to Europe and meet chocolate. Someone called the delicious result Mocha. The name obviously stuck.

In the meanwhile, business at the real Mocha was booming. Demand for coffee was exploding worldwide and Yemen had and held the coffee monopoly for 300 years! They were very protective of their raw coffee beans and smuggling any out of the country was a crime. That, of course, has never stopped anyone.

India’s smuggler was a 16th century Sufi saint from Karnataka, called Baba Budan, who came back with 7 coffee beans hidden in his beard, after his pilgrimage to Mecca. Much later, British colonizers in the 19th century commercialized the plant, introducing it to the rest of South India including Chennai. Soon India was producing enough coffee for export. Similar efforts worldwide, ended Yemen’s monopoly. Chennai soon met and embraced coffee with a generous amount of milk and sugar and never looked back.

Today a coffee lover in Chennai may declare that coffee has been in Chennai since the Gods walked the earth. That may not be entirely true, but decadent coffee has raised many religious questions. But that is another story.

For a chance to taste this delicious drink and other delicacies, book yourself a spot on our Food Trail here.

Image credit: Triv.rao [CC BY-SA 4.0]

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