Saturday, March 13, 2010

Tea/Chai, Part I: India

Not unlike many in India and all over the world, my day cannot begin without a bit of Darjeeling. The highlight of my morning is brewing my cup of tea from leaves grown on the tea estates on the lush green hills of Darjeeling in the northern part of Bengal. The steaming golden liquor with its distinctive delicate flavor beckons every morning and then draws me into its invigorating and comforting warmth. It is my daily ritual, yet every morning I wait to discover what the flavor will be because it is always a little different, unique each time. I also love to cycle through the choices I have, based on the season when the leaves were plucked. What will it be today? The light and clear liquor with the mild flavor of the First Flush? The amber cup with the fruity muscatel flavor of the Second Flush? Perhaps the stronger flavor of the Monsoon Flush? Or the coppery tinge and delicate flavor of Autumn Flush?
Darjeeling Second Flush leaves for this morning's cup. Photo: Sreyashi Dey, 2010

A part of my collection of teapots. Photo: Sreyashi Dey, 2010

The history of tea cultivation in India dates back to 1823 when Robert Bruce discovered tea plants growing wild in Upper Brahmaputra valley in the state of Assam in northeastern India. My father-in-law, who lived in that region for almost two decades, recently commented that the first tea garden in India, called "chabua" (or cha/tea planted) was started in 1831 and is about 25 miles east of Dibrugarh on the main trunk road to Tinsukia, and that it should be producing tea even now. In May 1838 the first Indian tea from Assam was sent to England for public sale. India produces several different varieties of mainly black tea. Darjeeling is a beautiful town nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas. With its cool and moist climate, rainfall patterns and terrain, it is a premier tea growing region of the world. The fine and delicately flavored tea from its famed gardens is exquisite and distinguished, enjoying a place of pride similar to champagne among wines. The Assam region, the land of the great river Brahmaputra, tigers and the one-horned rhino, is home to rich, full-bodied, bright and strong teas. The Nilgiris or the Blue Mountains of southern India produces some wonderfully fragrant teas, with great body and brisk liquor. 
 Temi tea from Sikkim, similar to Darjeeling First Flush. Photo: Sreyashi Dey, 2010

While it would not be accurate to say that all tea drinkers in India are connoisseurs, or even know the differences between a Darjeeling or an Assam tea, it is no less than a lifeline for millions. Tea or chai is an ubiquitous drink for Indians, available on street corners, on trains, roadside eating joints and in people's homes. What people commonly drink in all these places when they are outside the home or traveling is a concoction made out of some kind of tea leaves, granules or powder, and boiled in water with milk and sugar. Thick and syrupy, it may occasionally have an added flavor of freshly grated ginger or spices such as cardamom, although the relatively high price of spices often precludes its use on street corners or in roadside eateries called dhabas.
On a cool February morning, the chai-wallah at the street corner of my parents' home in Kolkata makes tea for her customers. Photo: Sreyashi Dey, 2008

Train travel in India and tea have an intimate connection. Tea sellers or chai-wallahs abound the railway platforms and the trains, including moving ones. They carry their wares in a metal pail - a large tea kettle with steaming hot chai and a stack of tea cups, either made of clay or more commonly, plastic in this day and age. They are not shy about getting business, enticing travelers to drink their tea with their characteristic "chai garam!" call which means "hot tea!" They can often be seen running alongside a moving train and thrusting the little cups of tea in the hands of the train passengers through the windows. They still manage to get the paid somehow, even if it means collecting the coins the passenger would fling on the floor of the platform in return for a hot cup of tea...almost an unwritten code of honor between the tea seller and the customer.
A tea cup on the window of a train moving through rural West Bengal. 
Still capture from my friend Sandeep Ray's wonderful film "The Earnest Years"

In 2007, my friend Charlee Brodsky, a distinguished photographer and a professor of Photography at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, made a trip to India with me. One of the things she was particularly struck by was the little clay teacups used by street vendors to serve tea in. These eco-friendly cups are beautiful to look at and add a special earthy flavor to the tea. Charlee was quite taken by them and was determined to bring some back home with her. She asked a tea vendor to sell her some of these cups (without the tea) and he was quite heartily amused at this unusual request! Later that day, she happened to find a naturally beautiful composition of three clay teacups on the ground, among leaves, twigs and stones, now filled with rainwater. Here is her photograph of it and it is one of my favorites.
Photo: Charlee Brodsky, 2007

I can just smell the tea these little cups once held, the damp earth after the rains and the lovely fragrance of the wet clay cups!


charlee said...

This is a beautiful piece of writing, Sreyashi. I will show you the photograph of the man who sold me the six (empty) clay tea cups. We had a standoff when he realized that I just wanted the cups and not the tea. He said I was paying too much and quickly adjusted the price! I refused too pay less (am I a bad customer?)! Now I have these beautiful little cups that I put candles in when my friends are over, and I also have a special memory. -charlee

Sreyashi Dey said...

Thanks, Charlee! I would love to see the photograph. I remember when you negotiated the deal. I should have got some myself...must do it the next time I am in India.

Talabgaar said...

Very nicely written and I also learned a little history of tea in India which, combined with your personal perspective, made this a very interesting read. I am of course equally passionate about my morning cup of tea, and I also try not to miss a second one around 4 PM in the afternoon, which was also customary in our house and also in the workplace back home. My favorite is brewed tea with ginger (and milk and sugar)but usually in the afternoons I have to make do with tea bags and creamer and such. Yuck!

Sreyashi Dey said...

Maybe we should also talk about the snacks we eat along with our tea, especially the afternoon/evening cup? Sweet/savory/soft/crunchy? And what about the weather? A hot cup of chai with munchies on a cool, rainy afternoon is just the thing, isn't it?

Emily said...

David and I also start our day by sharing a pot of Darjeeling (okay, I drink most of it, but he still gets a cup or so), largely because of your influence. I tend to prefer Assam, but want to add milk and sugar to it, whereas Darjeeling is perfect as-is.

Sreyashi Dey said...

And knowing David, there would also be accompanying factual discussions about tea - the history and the geography, and snippets of information from NPR :-)

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed the piece and especially the photographs. Looking forward to Part 2. The one you included from Charlee's collection is my favourite too. Don't know if I told you but after struggling to come up with a gift for Srirup on our recent visit to Durgapur, I did the equivalent of carrying coals to Newcastle - took him two kinds of tea (neither of them from India) that I bought from TeaHaus on 4th Ave. Spent hours admiring the various beautiful teapots in Shanghai - should have picked one up for you.

Sreyashi Dey said... are you the Indian lady who now buys tea as gifts for her friends at TeaHaus? Heard about that on the street :-)

I would have loved a teapot from Shanghai! Just remember - wherever you go, if you see a teapot, think of me and get one for me. It's like the ad in India for J&N: Whenever you see color, think of us.

bz said...

Liked your piece(s).
Your reference to "Chabua' reminded me of the local lore in those parts. The received wisdom is that the British were the ones who brought tea to India from China. That is not how the tea chauvinists of Assam (especially around Chabua) see it. Legend has it that in days of yore, there lived this learned sage (Rishi) who knew about all the medicinal plants and decided for the good of humanity to put the knowledge down in writing for posterity. So he completed that task for a thousand plants and then realized that he had not much time left to live and there were 2 thousand more plants whose beneficial effects are still to be recorded. So, through his yogic powers he created a new plant and imbued it with the powers of the remaining 2000 and uttered "Cha Bua" - "Tea, Grow", or Tea Planted as you noted.
And the rest is history. Well not quite if we accept the modern version.
Again, according to Indian (especially Assamese) tea chauvinists, tea ranks second only to Buddhism as the most important contribution to China from India.

Sreyashi Dey said...

I enjoyed reading this local lore. I would personally totally agree that tea is a very significant contribution of India to China. Thanks for sharing your comment!