It seems ironical to write about Tea, after writing about such a significant influence on my childhood and psyche like ACK – but this blog is about things both big and small, the trivial and the significant – all that have in their small or big ways helped enrich my life both intellectually, spiritually as well as provided me relief, succour etc.
I was in Colombo earlier this year on a company led jamboree, and there were about a 100 of us. In one of the most natural group formations, another vegetarian and I were hanging around together. He was a Gujarati, and by the first afternoon, he was dying for chaai.
This seemed like a surrealist scene out of Kafka or the plays where one is looking for God. We were surrounded by tea, and yet looking for Chaai. And understandably the group we were with identified with his longing and it became our mission to look for Indian Chaai. We found a sorry compromise in one of the smaller stalls run by a tamil family. But over a couple of chaais the small group had some great moments. The second round we had was a black tea version of the same minus the condensed milk from a can. It seemed to be nice to bond over a cup of tea, and I think it was far more fun than we had over drinks in the evening.
Yes, Indian Chaai is quite distinct, and we take it for granted, but realise what we are missing only when we don’t have access to it.
I started drinking tea as my beverage of choice even though we drank both coffee and tea at home. And this was because my mom was reputed to prepare the best tea in my community – it was not any masala or addu waala chai – just plain tea. Somehow my mom had cracked the right amount of tea to water, to boiling it just right and even adding the right amount of milk. What you got in your hand had the perfect dark brownish-orange coloured brew, with flavourful fumes of steam at the perfect temperature to give you a blissful ten minutes to gently sip it away.
It might seem a vain claim because finally the family gets used to it as a daily occurrence, but every visitor we served tea to – across ever city in India we were in, be it in the north or south or west, would first compliment the tea we served. Another thing Mom was good at was remembering who was a diabetic, who wasn’t, and if that guest returned, he would get the right tea!. (Now that I have seen some of the world, and interacted with more folk, I think one reason for this was that unlike at most other folk’s homes we never had servants, maids or cooks – everything was prepared by Mom personally ….and that made the world of difference!).
Now after nearly a decades of drinking the perfect tea, it was bound to be difficult to drink tea outside. This was not a problem in India as everyone more or less made similar tea outside and even though it was a far cry from what mom made, they would make up partly by adding flavours like ginger, elaichi or masala etc. What I eventually also got used to was this syrupy tea which barely smelt of tea, but was laced with strong flavours of spices.
Perhaps the true test of having the tea is if you can have it without sugar and most teas in India are able to give you that flavourful burst of sensorial stimulation in each sip even when you drink it without tea.
Even before I went abroad – I had found out how hard it was to find the right cup of tea. Across our various trips in India itself we had tried all the different tea estates’ special teas, including teas from abroad (a Japanese one too which we gave up trying to prepare). Sometimes the flavours were distinctly different i.e. a little too exotic for us, but mostly the tea just didn’t cut it. We would return to our regular brands. Even when tea became unaffordable, my mom would concoct the right mix of affordable brands (dust was the cheaper version) and then come out with the right combination.
Understandably it is a challenge for Indians to get the right cuppa. First there’s the tea, which might be either too weak or just too different in flavour. Second it is the milk. Indian tea is normally almost always prepared by fresh liquid milk – and that is a fairly significant contributor. Abroad the milk could be from different sources – powder creamer, condensed milk, evaporated milk etc. – each of which would have their own strong flavours. One of the other consequences of this is that the colour of tea is never right – so, even if you are using the same tea powder from India, the final tea won’t look and feel the same. The third and most important distinction is… preparation. As every Indian will tell you, Tea that has been prepared in a pan is quite different from one made by dipping a tea bag in a cup. So when you are travelling, this becomes a big challenge. Even if you have the right brand, and fresh milk it still is not possible to get the right brew because you cant prepare it the way it should be done.
My habits of tea have evolved greatly. The more I travelled I would figure out what to order that would help fill the sensorial gap that needs to be fulfilled at tea time. I stopped having sugar with tea for almost ten years now, and have also developed a taste for black and green tea. The only problem with this as I realised later was I would be drinking several cups of these teas during the day (and finally settled on green tea which doesn’t cause acidity and is safe) to make up for that one perfect cup of tea which would have easily get me going through the first half of the day.
Storm in a teacup? The Colombo trip was a nice awakening and evaluating the special bond we have with our Chaais – something that enriches our lives so many times every day.