Book Shelf

The Connoisseur’s Book of Indian Coffee

Planting times

Elite Clubs of India

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 bowl.

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.



Rolling Mist

Mill 2 Mall