Shalini Kala comes back with a heart-warming story about her gradually evolving companionship with tea as a drink, and also about the beauty and perils of being an obsessive lover of tea. After reading this you come out feeling tea-refreshed, tuned and supremely informed about tea. Essential reading, for those who care about tea.
For about an year, my mum moved out of our big city apartment with my 6-year old younger brother and myself to pursue a specialized teaching degree. We were off to my paternal grandmother’s childhood home; the university mum was going to study in was in the same town. A few years earlier dad’s elder brother had managed a posting to the same town and they were well-settled in the house along with our sour-tempered grandma – she had a particular liking for me, and I reciprocated in equal measure!
Small, laid back, and a little primitive compared to the big city we were used to, this town and its routine were an uncharted adventure for us. Walking twenty steps out of the main house to the toilet, bathing in the flowing river, accompanying neighboring kids to take their cows for grazing and dragging fire wood on our way back home, climbing mountains to reach a place and not just for fun, grinding fresh spices for every meal on the grinding stone and shopping for groceries on a regular basis left me wide-eyed and totally kicked each day. It thrilled me no end that as an 8-year old, I was allowed to drink tea and I could do that at least a couple of times in a day. I really enjoyed that sweet, boiled ginger tea with thin cow’s milk, typical of mountains. Our four o’clock snack, mostly used to be left-over chapatis from lunch with tea; we craved for it – I wonder if the worms in our tummies were playing a trick.
That one year and I was hooked to tea; and even though my mum tried hard to get us off it once we were back in the big city, it was not to be. Anyway, by this time we had another sibling and mum was too busy to nitpick on our tea drinking habits. In time I started to ask for the lemon tea that mum and dad used to have during winters. I liked that very much too and that sealed my tea drinking fate.
I never liked very milky tea which is what most of our Punjabi friends and neighbors would drink and offer. The more loving ones would just boil some tea leaves in milk and serve. That recipe didn’t do much for me. By the time I crossed my teens I had a good idea of what I liked the best which was the way my mum made it – just ginger, no other spices, a gentle boil, and a little milk, or just black lemon tea.
Then one day at G’s, who is Bengali, his mother served tea that was very thin, almost translucent and had just about two drops of milk. The fragrance was strong and intriguing. Tea had rarely smelt like that for me. One sip and my deep-seated idea of tea was shattered – it blew my mind, literally, and had it not been for G, it wouldn’t have been restored back to where it belonged ensuring my remaining days in a mad house! It was a curse to have tasted true long leaf tea from the east which was terribly difficult to find in the cities of north thirty years ago. Subsequently, trips to G’s house at tea time became embarrassingly frequent.
A few years later work started to take me to different parts of the country. Each such trip involved meeting people in offices, villages and farms; staying in hotels;and stopping on roadsides and train stations. Tea was the ubiquitous element in all this. Each pot churning out its own unique tea – too sweet, too milky, too bitter, too boiled, too dark, too stale – my cribbing was relentless. Rarely did I find something good enough for my palate. There were clear signs of someone becoming a tea Nazi, once again help was needed to keep the brain in its place, co-travelling colleagues rose to the occasion time and again.
Soon enough, I found myself sitting in the office of a large company in a place called Jalgaon in Maharashtra. Tea was offered and, as courtesy demanded, I politely accepted resigned to trying all kinds of tea that came my way. After a few minutes of work talk, I noticed a tray with a single, small cup entering the room. I had a hard time smothering my smile, as happiness at the smallness of the cup threatened to spill out on the table. I somehow managed to convert the smile into a questioning gaze at my host who squeezed out of the tea drinking on the pretext that he’d just devoured a cup. I should have known.
We got busy chatting as the cup lay in front of me when after a few minutes I was gently informed that the tea might get cold. I held the cup and started to get it closer. Less than two feet from my mouth and my head started to reel under another sort of fragrance. Had I not been sittingin a chair I would have fainted there and then, and I say this in all seriousness! This seemed like the stench of aged rancid curdled coconut milk. I just could not bring myself to drink this tea and risk my brain leaving me, not a third time, especially when I didn’t really have any friends or colleagues around to help get it back.
That was it for me, the proverbial last straw. Having forced to fly away a few times, my mind started working at super speed. Withing a couple of hours I had found a solution with possible add-ons and customizations. First, gently push the hosts in any meeting to not bother with tea-coffee. If that doesn’t work, ask for tea without milk and sugar, suggesting that it was under medical advice that one was forced to do so. Ask for water too, and if needed, add it in a generous quantity to the black tea to reduce the misery of ingesting a well-boiled, dark, bitter potion. Ignore the alarming looks on the face of your hosts when you are doing so. Believe me, this worked very well for me except that in a short time I could drink nothing but black sugar-less tea.
This turned into a blessing when I started to travel to tea growing areas within and outside the country, enjoying a variety of black, some green, and rarely some exotic teas. I got to see tea factories, discovered the few specialized tea places in my big city, and soon enough started to hold my own, lecturing friends and family on good leaf teas – CTCs are garbage – and the way to make and serve tea. At each successive lecture my nose seemed to rise a little more upwards in the air and the audience seemed to slip lower down a wee bit from my eye level. Friends hosting me would shudder making tea, my guests would shudder at the mere mention of me making tea for them. I had fully and completely turned into a tea Nazi.
And I have been in this state for several years now. When invited to the homes of neighbors I am seen carrying my own cup of tea, and for the more obliging ones I carry the pot forcing them to drink my “high-class” stuff. I am lucky to not have been banished from society for my madness.
My recommendation for a good everyday tea is Assam Orthodox. And the way to prepare it is to bring water to boil, switch off the heat. For each cup of tea add a tea-spoon of leaves. Cover and brew for 4-5 minutes. Gently strain into a cup, have without sugar, and without milk or with only a few drops to savor the real flavor and aroma of tea. Next on my list are the Darjeeling and the Nepali leaf teas, best had without milk and sugar. Follow the same process to brew tea. Some of the Nilgiri teas are also worth trying. I don’t really like the Sri Lankan and Kenyan teas, flavored ones are totally avoidable. Wishing you a good, real cuppa tea every day!
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Shalini learnt to enjoy cooking at a mature age by which time she had gained many other experiences particularly through her work in agriculture and rural development. Her writing is an attempt to mix lessons from her cooking experiments with those from life in general.