Shilpa Kotamarthi and Aditya Srivathsan are introducing their favourite hot Indian beverage at Madras Kaapi. And before you assume what beverage it is, it’s not chai.
It’s coffee, or as the name suggests, kaapi.
“In the south of India, we’ve been heavy coffee drinkers for generations,” says Srivathsan. “We have our own coffee plantations in all of the seven provinces. So it’s that culture that we want to bring here.”
The duo are giving Toronto a taste of south Indian coffee at their first brick-and-mortar cafe, which opened this weekend at 870 College (near Crawford).
Aside from beans sourced from southern India, what makes south Indian coffee unique is the chicory root that’s in the blend. Srivathsan says it provides an “earthy, woody and nutty undertone” to the coffee. The blends can also vary in different coffee-to-chicory ratios, usually ranging between zero to 30 per cent chicory being used (although you can go higher, depending on your preference).
“With my parents, I know my mom likes the 80/20 [ratio] and my dad likes the 90/10 [ratio], so it’s very family specific,” Kotamarthi says.
The technique for making south Indian coffee is different too. A cylindrical metal coffee filter press is used. It’s composed of two cylindrical cups, a tamper and a lid. The coffee powder is added to one cylinder and then lightly tamped. After adding boiling water, you cover the filter with the lid and wait for 15 minutes so the coffee can collect at the bottom.
“I call it low tech,” Srivathsan jokes.
According to Srivathsan and Kotamarthi, the coffee that collects is thicker than an espresso shot and is called a decoction, like a coffee concentrate. Because of how rich it is, they suggest adding hot milk. You then add jaggery, an unrefined cane sugar that has slight bitterness and caramel flavour into a davara, a wide brass tumbler set.
The next step is using a davara to do the aeration, which is essentially pouring the coffee from the cup to the bowl, back and forth (if you’re a pro like them, you can pour at higher speeds and at greater distances without making a mess). The result is rich, creamy, sweet and frothy concoction.
The idea to open Madras Kaapi started in 2016, says Srivathsan. The couple was living in Montreal and realized south Indian coffee options were lacking. The drink reminded them of home in India where it continues to be a staple for their family.
“I enjoy my coffee with the davara and tumbler and something to read in front of me. I’ve seen my grandfather do this. I’ve seen my parents do this,” Srivathsan says. “I think it’s in my DNA.”
They often asked family and friends to pick up coffee from India, so much so that they would have to plan ahead to make sure they wouldn’t run out of coffee before they secured their next lot.
The day came when they finally ran out and they decided it was time to do something about it. When they realized the right beans or alternatives weren’t available in Canada, they decided to get their green beans directly from the source – farmers in south India.
These green beans have a shelf life of six to eight months. After scouting for a roaster, they found a local one (who’s still their roaster today) who knows how to consistently roast the beans in a way that hits all the right notes.
They launched an online store in September 2016. At the time Madras Kaapi was both Kotamarthi and Srivathsan’s side hustle.
“We never thought of opening up a space someday. We were just making good coffee for the love of coffee,” Kotamarthi says.
In 2019 Srivathsan got a job offer in Toronto, which resulted in a move to the city and Kotamarthi quitting her job in Montreal. When she realized there weren’t too many jobs in business and marketing analytics in e-commerce, she used the opportunity to build Madras Kaapi’s brand and online presence.
“I was collaborating with influencers in the city and doing more Instagram posts,” she says. “I was tracking the analytics conversion rates and all of that and became more serious about it. And then we realized we were onto something. This is growing here and people are responding and asking where they can drink our coffee.”
Before committing to opening up a space in the city, the couple ran market pop-up shops at 6×8 Market and Kensington Flea Market in the summer to gauge turnout. When the pop-ups were successful, they started looking for a flagship store with an ideal location for their existing customers.
The cafe offers their signature coffee blends, snacks (with one south Indian dish featured every week) and indoor and outdoor seating. Chocolate-covered coffee beans, davaras, tumblers and Madras Kaapi merchandise like totes and scented candles are also available to purchase.
“We’d love to build a community of sorts and get to know everybody,” Kotamarthi says. “I’m also glad that we’re jumping into this having built a community. It’s really overwhelming and nice because I’m getting a lot of messages from our customers saying that they’re excited and that they want to help.”
“Also the respect we have for small business owners and mom and pop shops,” Srivathsan says now that they’ve opened a shop. “It’s [now multiplied by] 10. They are superstars.”