Tea cultures of the native kind
By Aparna Datta
Green tea lattes that give a brand new spin to matcha; fruit
teas with punch enough to knock carbonated drinks off supermarket
shelves. Tea as a consumer beverage is now largely designed
through research and development, produced for the market
with a firm eye on shareholder profits! Innovation is the
order of the day, with fashionable flavours that change with
the season, much like the spring, summer, autumn and winter
collections in apparel and clothing. The new global café
culture ensures that the same teas are available in Sydney
or Paris, New York or Singapore just as soon as they bubble
up from the corporate cauldron.
The alternate to tea as a business proposition is tea as
a community asset. In fact, the way tea is made and served
practically defines many societies around the world. The tea
ceremony of Japan is in a league of its own; China and Korea
have their own venerable traditions. Less well known perhaps,
but no less distinctive, are several other tea trails in Asia
and North Africa that lead to communities where tea is embedded
in their diet, their cuisine and their lifestyle.
On the road to Mandalay
The tea plant was growing wild in the jungles of Assam in
north east India, well before Robert Bruce made his discovery
and commercial tea production started in the early years of
the 19th century. In 1598, a Dutch traveller, Jan Huyghen
van Linschoten, noted that the Indians ate the leaves as a
vegetable with garlic and oil and boiled the leaves to make
a brew. He could well have written about the Singhpo tribe,
who had cultivated tea for ages. Or he could have meant the
Khamtis or Kachins or any number of tribes living alongside
the Brahmaputra river, or in the mountainous regions of northern
Burma, today’s Myanmar.
No wonder then that pickled tea, or Laphet as it is known
locally, is accorded soul food status in Myanmar. Relished
by kings and aristocrats in olden times, Laphet is laid out
for monks on religious occasions, offered to other deities,
such as guardian spirits of rivers, mountains, trees and fields,
and served as a mark of respect to parents, elders and teachers.
Highly versatile, it is served on social and religious occasions
as a dessert, and also as an everyday snack or accompaniment
to a bowl of rice. In serving Laphet, pickled tea leaves steeped
in oil take pride of place, surrounded with fried garlic,
fried beans, fried peanuts, roasted sesame seeds, whole or
chopped fresh green chillies and some dry shrimp. Pickled
tea also doubles up as a salad, served along with sliced tomatoes.
Pickling tea leaves is itself an art, involving ‘first
flush’ leaves which, after steaming, are packed into
bamboo jars and buried in underground pits for six months,
inspected regularly to check fermentation. For the people
of Myanmar, Laphet is both delicacy and social glue.
Tea time in Morocco
By the 19th century, the British had moved into a pivotal
position in the international tea trade of the time, but appeared
to lose the plot after the Crimean War when the Slav market
evaporated. Stuck with huge stocks of green tea, they turned
to North Africa – and opened up a whole new market.
The people of the Maghreb took to tea with alacrity, inventing
for themselves their very own, highly ritualized tea ceremony.
The preferred tea in Morocco, as also the tribes of the deserts
of North Africa, is Chinese green tea of the gunpowder variety,
served with cane sugar and fresh mint or basil, pepper, sage,
verbena, marjoram or absinthe, orange or rosewater. Tea is
served in glasses; while pouring, the teapot, always silver
and often beautifully handcrafted, is alternately raised high
and then lowered to oxygenate the liquid, producing an aromatic
brew with light froth.
Mark Moxon, travel writer, notes, “The north African
tea ceremony is well known to be the oil in the cogs of commerce
from Morocco to Egypt; it spread along with the Sahara's nomadic
tribes from the Berbers in the northwest to the Tuareg in
the Sahara, and if you ever try to buy a carpet in a carpet
shop or a pair of slippers in a souq, you'll be offered tea.
It's an unavoidable part of life in desert Africa. The Tuareg
are particularly into their tea ceremonies, and as you wander
through countries where the Tuareg proliferate, such as Mauritania,
Niger and Mali, you see people brewing tea everywhere.”
Multi-cultural Indian tea
Tea landed in India just as soon as the East India Company
opened up the trade route to India. The headquarters of the
Company were initially established at Surat on the west coast
state of Gujarat in 1612, before being shifted to Bombay in
1674. Ovington recorded in 1689 that “tea was taken
by the banias (business people) of Surat without sugar, or
mixed with a small quantity of conserved lemons, and that
tea with some spices added was used against headache, gravel
and gripe.” Certainly, it was Chinese green tea that
first entered India, as Gujarat is thousands of kilometers
from Assam, and commercial black tea production did not start
in India till two centuries later. Interestingly, the people
of Gujarat still remain one of the highest consumers of tea
in India, with the concoction usually flavoured with cardamom
and ginger. Gujarat, then, is most likely where masala chai
originated, with spice as the dominant factor, the tea leaf
being secondary. For masala chai, black tea is brewed along
with milk, sugar and spices to produce a thick sweet liquid.
The Parsis, a small community settled primarily in the western
states of Maharashtra and Gujarat in India, and who are descendants
of people who migrated from Persia some 1000 years ago, have
a distinct preference for mint tea. Fresh mint leaves and
black tea is added to boiling water and left to steep for
a few minutes; milk and sugar is added later. A variation
involves the addition of a small piece of lemon grass along
with the mint, for authentic Parsi tea.
At the hot tea shops in the Nilgiri hills of south India,
the CTC or fannings used have a striking flavour, the tea
being markedly fresh given the origin. But being South India,
the tea is prepared like filter coffee – as a decoction!
Tea decoction is prepared separately using muslin cloth and
kept on standby; when a customer orders tea, a little amount
is poured into a tumbler, and then hot water blended with
milk and sugar is poured in from a jug raised high to yield
froth. It is cold in these hills round the year, and this
version of tea is one of the most suitable for this climate.
The pink tea of Kashmir
Every Kashmiri home has a samovar, made either of brass or
copper or embossed silver. Inside the samovar is a fire-container
in which charcoal and live coals are placed. Around the fire-container
there is a space for water to boil. Tea leaves, sugar, cardamom,
and cinnamon are put in the water.
Two types of tea, typical of Kashmir, can be prepared in
the samovar. The favourite is the kehva made with a special
tea called bambay chay mixed with sugar, pounded cardamom,
cinnamon and almonds or pistachios boiled in water, but without
any milk. Sometimes, honey substitutes sugar, and saffron
is added for flavour. The second type of tea is dabal chay,
a favourite with Kashmiri Pandits, the Hindus of Kashmir.
It is made with bambay chay, along with sugar, cardamom, almonds,
and milk. Another type of tea is called shir' chay, also known
as gulabi chay or pink tea. This is made with green tea, rather
oolong, prepared with bicarbonate of soda, salt, milk, and
cream (malai) and brewed over a fire, yielding a decidedly
frothy and pink-hued liquid. Kashmiri tea is served in typical
Kashmiri cups called khos.
High mountain tea of Tibet
Since the 7th century AD, yaks have carried tea from the Chinese
provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan into Tibet. To survive the
long distance, tea was preserved in the form of bricks, and
to this day, Tibetans consume brick tea. The brick is crushed
in a mortar and boiled in water, and then whisked together
with yak’s butter and salt. Tea-churning is a daily
ritual for Tibetans – every family keeps a slim wooden
cylinder equipped with a wooden piston to activate the churning.
After a minute or two of mixing the liquid is poured into
a kettle and kept warm over a fire, ready to be served at
any time. Sometimes, ginger, orange peel, spices, milk or
even onion is added and the tea served in a wooden or ceramic
So unique are these methods and tea ceremonies that it may
be said that the communities hold intellectual property rights
to the processes! Given the distinctive locations, even geographical
indications are in order. A counterpoint to branded and trademarked
teas from corporate entities, here the traditional knowledge
related to tea preparation and service belongs to the community,
with usage evolving over time specific to the culture and
habitat. Such diversity does much to enrich the world of tea
– long may these traditions last.
© Aparna Datta, 2006
Published in Tea & Coffee Asia
magazine, 2nd Quarter 2006
Tea Time – Beacon/Cassell & Co.