Acquainted, Finally: Degree Coffee In Kumbakonam

The last, long weekend saw us in Kumbakonam, Tamilnadu, to honour certain long-standing religious commitments. And, while in Kumbakonam, how could we not stop and smell the coffee… er, the degree coffee.. and drink our fill of it, too? That is how this dream of mine got crossed off my bucket list, finally.

What on earth is ‘degree coffee’?

For the uninitiated, ‘degree coffee’ is just one of the things that the temple town of Kumbakonam is very famous for. What is interesting, though, is that there are no flashy signboards proclaiming the availability of the drink in hotels across town, nothing to make it a big tourist attraction. I mean, several hotels do have it on their menu, but it is quiet, understated, like a sort of guarded secret.

The degree coffee we tasted at a few places in Kumbakonam looks and tastes just like the regular filter coffee that is commonly available across Tamilnadu. So, what is the difference between the two?, we asked. As per the service staff at most hotels we tried out, degree coffee is made almost the same way as regular filter coffee. The only difference between the two is that degree coffee is made with pure cow’s milk, while the filter coffee is made from ‘packet milk’ aka pasteurised milk. We did come across milkmen delivering milk to hotels and homes in huge cans, from their farms, so this theory makes sense. The milk we ordered in for the bub in our hotel room in Kumbakonam did seem to taste very pure, fresh and delish. And, yes, after a few samplings, we did realise how the degree coffee tastes much fresher and better than ordinary filter coffee. 

Why is ‘degree coffee’ called so? 

No one, in Kumbakonam or otherwise, really seems to know the story behind the name ‘degree coffee’. There are quite a few other interesting legends about the name, though.

Some believe that this coffee was originally called ‘chicory coffee’, because chicory would be added to extract the full flavour from the coffee. Locals started calling it ‘tikeri coffee’, which, over time, changed to ‘degree coffee’.

Another explanation is that ‘degree coffee’ is made only with milk whose purity has been checked using a lactometer – that the degree markings on the meter led to the name.

Some people believe that ‘degree coffee’ is made using the first decoction from the filter – sometimes referred to as ‘first degree’. This is what gave the coffee its name.

Some people believe that the coffee was originally called ‘decree coffee’, which later morphed into ‘degree coffee’. A certain 19th century British Collector of the Thanjavur District loved the coffee that was served to him by a local cook in Kumbakonam so much that he decreed that he should be served similar coffee on all his travels.

Our experience

Whatever be the story behind its name, degree coffee certainly is outstanding. We tried it out several times over, and it was always lovely, fresh and aromatic and refreshing. Everywhere, it is served in little brass davara-tumblers – those quintessential South Indian vehicle for coffee – that are beyond cute. There’s definitely something special about Kumbakonam’s degree coffee.

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Degree coffee at Hotel Venkatramana, Kumbakonam

I urge you to try out this coffee, if you haven’t ever.

Where?

Hotel Venkatramana and Murali’s Cafe are believed to be the best places in Kumbakonam to have degree coffee, though a few other restaurants serve it, too.

I hear there are a lot of ‘fake’ degree coffee joints dotting highways in Tamilnadu and several in Madras, too. I cannot claim to tell you about the authenticity (or not) of these places. If you are interested in authentic degree coffee, your best bet would be to head to Kumbakonam and try it out in the little eateries in town.

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On A Jigarthanda Trail In Madurai 

Walk around the streets of Madurai for just a little while, and it becomes absolutely clear just how popular jigarthanda is in the city. Every nook and corner has a jigarthanda shop, some boasting of ‘unique taste’. Some shops have locals and tourists alike milling around, while some are empty. As we take this all in, the husband and I decide to try out the jigarthanda at a few different places.

What is this jigarthanda, you ask? It is a drink made of milk and badam pisin, flavoured with either rose syrup or sarsaparilla (nannari) extract, served with a scoop of locally made, fresh ice cream. Sometimes, it also comes topped with tutti-frooti or dry fruits. It is the South Indian version of falooda, if you may.

The name of the drink literally translates to ‘heart cooler’ (‘jigar‘ means ‘Heart’ in Hindi, while ‘thanda‘ means ‘Cool’). The drink is actually supposed to possess great health benefits, is believed to help cool down body heat and aid in the healing of several ailments – all this while being pleasing to the tongue.

But what is a drink with a name like ‘jigarthanda‘ doing in a typically South Indian temple town like Madurai? Where did it come from? No one knows for sure. Some believe that the drink was made popular by the Mughal rulers, that its popularity trickled down South, and it found a home in Madurai. Some others believe that Muslim settlers from Hyderabad brought the drink to Madurai in the 1700s. Some believe that it was a Muslim ice cream maker in Madurai who first invented this drink. Such legends about the origin of the jigarthanda are many, but there seems to be no doubt about one thing – Madurai is the best place to have this drink. Today, Madurai is almost synonymous with jigarthanda, in spite of the drink being available at quite a few places across South India.

Let me tell you about the few places in Madurai that we chose to try out the jil jil jigarthanda, as the locals call it.

Sastha’s, near the Meenakshi Amman temple 

We discovered Sasta’s on our first day in Madurai, walking around the famous Meenakshi Amman temple. The place seemed nice and clean and decent, so we asked for a glass of jigarthanda.

Jigarthanda at Sastha’s

The drink had a lovely taste here, and felt like manna to our parched throats. It was cool and milky, and had just the right amount of the sticky badam pisin in it. We particularly loved the malai ice cream that the drink came topped with.

This jigarthanda was far, far, far better than the version I had once, at a street-side shop in Trichy. 

Murugan Idli Shop, near the Meenakshi Amman temple 

We had heard that the jigarthanda at the famous Murugan Idli Shop in Madurai was lovely, so that was where we headed to for our next sampling of the drink. We chose a ‘Special Jigarthanda‘ here.

Special jigarthanda at Murugan Idli Shop

Sadly, though, this jigarthanda wasn’t the mind-blowing thing we had expected it to be. The taste was just okay, and there was way too much pisin and tutti-frooti in the drink for our liking. Probably, we should have just asked for a ‘regular’ version.

Famous Jigarthanda Shop, East Marret Street

Located on the busy East Marret Street in Madurai, the Famous Jigarthanda Shop is one of the oldest outlets in the city selling the drink. The jigarthanda here is believed to be the best in Madurai, and I am glad we managed to visit it – we were almost going to give it a miss, due to paucity of time.

People say that Famous has been maintaining consistent quality and taste in its jigarthanda, ever since the shop came into existence in 1977. There’s only one item on the menu here – jigarthanda – and that is enough to attract people in droves. We visited the shop at about 11 AM on a weekend, and it was buzzing like a beehive!

Top: Famous Jigarthanda Shop on East Marret Street, Bottom: The jigarthanda we had at Famous

The jigarthanda here was simply awesome, truly the best out of all those we had tried thus far. Unlike other places, this jigarthanda had a lovely brown colour and a rich, beautiful taste to it. I hear Famous adds basundi – made using a secret recipe – to its jigarthanda, and that is what gives the drink its gorgeous colour and flavour.

Some say Famous was the inventor of the jigarthanda, the shop that brought the drink to Madurai first of all. Whatever legends might say, this is, unarguably, one of the best jigarthanda I have ever had. Don’t miss this place, if you ever visit Madurai, I urge you!

And that was the end of our jigarthanda sampling trail in Madurai, if you could call it that. Trying authentic jigarthanda in Madurai is now finally, officially crossed off my bucket list!

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Have you tried jigarthanda, ever? How did you like it? 

Which is the best place you have had this drink? 

A Walk Through RK Narayan’s House In Yadavgiri, Mysore

I find it somewhat strange how our recent, planned-at-the-last-minute trip to Mysore turned into a sort of exploration into the life of Indian writer RK Narayan. Just a little way into the trip, purely by chance, we stopped for breakfast at a restaurant reminiscent of RK’s Malgudi Days. Once we reached Mysore, we realised that the author’s house was a few paces’ walk away from where we were staying! And then, as we explored Mysore, we began to discover that almost every place we visited had some or the other connections with RK. Spooky, but I am glad this happened. Otherwise, I might never have gotten around to visiting RK Narayan’s house and knowing the author a little better.

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The board at the entrance to RK Narayan’s house

RK Narayan, best known for his book Malgudi Days, especially the unforgettable character of Swami, lived for some part of his life in Yadavgiri, Mysore. The two-storey house stayed in a state of neglect for quite a few years, after everyone from the author’s family moved away from it, one after the other.

The house was just about to be razed down, in 2011, when a group of people recognised the immense value that it held and started a protest against the bulldozing. More and more people went on to join the protest, the media took notice, and then, a decision was taken to not destroy the house, but to restore it to its former glory and make it into a museum showcasing paraphernalia from RK Narayan’s life and times (October 10, 1906 to May 13, 2001). Sad that places like this are considered to be of no value, and that people have to fight for its restoration, but at least, the restoration happened! And, it is a very well-done restoration, too. Today, the house has become somewhat of a tourist attraction, with fans of the author visiting so as to get a peek into the life of their favourite author for a brief while.

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RK Narayan’s two-storey house in Yadavgiri

Personally, I am not a big fan of the author. I rather enjoyed watching Swami in the TV version of Malgudi Days – and that is the face I remember when I think of Swami. As for the author’s books, I found them quite dry and dull. But then, the lives of authors and the way they find inspiration for their stories always intrigues me, and for that reason, I loved visiting this place.

Apparently, RK Narayan came from an affluent Tamilian household, and his house is testimony to his family’s financial status. It is quite spacious, well ventilated, airy and full of light. We saw pictures of this very same house in its sad state of disrepair, and judging by that, the restoration team has done a wonderful, wonderful job.

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A photograph of the author with his wife

One room in the house is devoted to black-and-white photographs from the author’s life – the school he went to, one of him as a little boy with his parents, one with his wife, one of him with his wife and daughter, and so on. On display are also the various degrees that the author was awarded and the awards he received, including the prestigious Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan. In bits and pieces, a number of placards tell the story of RK Narayan’s life, rather tragic if you ask me, with him going against his family and society to marry the girl he loved, only for her to pass away just a short while into their marriage, and then, later with his daughter also passing away before him.

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RK Narayan’s collection of books

Another room in the house has built-in-the-wall bookshelves that hold the books the author has read, during his lifetime, as well as the many different ones he has written. Quotes by the author, at different times in his life and from his books, also adorn the walls.

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A quote by RK Narayan. How true, right?

Stills from the TV serials and movies that have been made out of his books are also displayed.

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Stills from the TV version of Malgudi Days, the work for which the author is best known

I simply loved what once was the author’s study, with huge windows letting in the sunlight and a table in the centre, where, I am guessing, he used to sit and read.

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The author’s study. Fascinating, is it not?

The original kitchen, bathroom and storeroom in the house have also been retained, just as they were all those years ago. There definitely was an air of old-worldiness surrounding these rooms, and I could not help but imagine how the author and his family would have gone around their daily chores in this house.

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The original kitchen in the house, now stands restored

Another room in the house exhibits the clothes and glasses that RK wore during his lifetime, all lovingly preserved. There are photographs of him wearing these very same clothes and glasses. Apparently, the author was a very simple man who didn’t believe in hoarding possessions, and his simple belongings reflect that, as well as the times he lived in.

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A winter coat that the author used to wear

The husband and I thoroughly enjoyed the visit to the author’s house, leisurely going through each and every thing on display, and trying to piece together what his life might have been like. If you are a book lover and love peeking into the lives of authors, I would highly recommend a visit to this place, irrespective of whether you are an RK Narayan fan or not.

The house remains open to the public on all days of the week, from 10 AM to 5 PM. There are no entry fees. All you are expected to do, at the end of your visit, is enter your comments/suggestions into a guest book placed at the reception.

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Do check out my other posts about Mysore!

Chocolate paan, from Mysore, with love

Of eating mysorepak straight from its place of origin

Notes from a sort of dosa trail in Mysore