The Indus Valley stands as the only surviving civilization with tea culture that survives to this day. Sipping on Darjeeling, Assam or Nilgiri teas, rarely do we take the time to ponder over the craft of making tea and its cultural significance. “Even if you’re an avid tea drinker, have you ever wondered why you don’t enjoy the other world of Indian tea?” asks-Chaitanya Joshi, Co-founder of a UK based company.
The first step to understanding the history and craft of the tea-producing regions is to understand the time period and the characters involved in its making. The origins of tea are associated with the earliest inhabitants of India. Tea is derived from the Chinese word for millet. In fact, the word “tea” is derived from the Chinese word “tiān”. In Chinese the word “tiān” means both “a beverage and a source of food”. The Chinese drink tea to reduce food cravings and digestion. A similar process happens in India where the Indian tea plant (“Camellia sinensis”) is grown in Chaotic conditions. This means that the Chinese taste for their traditional beverage was only mastered in Chaotic conditions. Since the Chinese need high temperature and strong sun to increase their crop yield, the Chinese cultivated tea plants in Chaotic climate for optimum yield. Even before the Chinese introduced their tea plants to India, people from this region were familiar with the cultivation of tea plants. What the Chinese brought along was a unique fermentation process, a plant-based digestive laxative preparation, tea plantations, an existing infrastructure to cultivate tea, weather that suits the tea plants and the knowledge to produce the desired quality of tea. This all helped the tea cultivators to make an excellent tasting cup of tea. The process is called “tat” (Hindi), referring to the contraction of leaves. This technique has remained the same and is used today.
Along with the Chinese, local tribes of India also domesticated tea and made the drink available to the local population. The nizam of Hyderabad’s favourite drink was called chai! During the rainy season tea is grown in the Ganges region and harvested once in two years. The technique is known as “oxidation”, since tea flowers absorb soil nutrients during rainy seasons. The skins are then boiled and dried for six months. Tea is ready for consumption after the six months. The tea leaves are then soaked in water to make tea. The resulting liquid is still boiled. To prevent oxidation, the boiling water is again added to the soaked leaves.
It is a cold, cloudy, drizzly November morning at the Royal Exchange Hotel and as the first spoonful leaves its way into my mouth, I am offered a cup of green tea in a silver teapot to hold my cup of water to my lips. It’s a beautiful morning. The gushing raindrops are falling heavily on the streets, the leaves are rustling with the showers, and I sit at my table with a sip of hot tea and a toast of English breakfast. When you take a sip of tea, the beverage’s world can only be tasted as that which flows out of your tea pot. A quality teapot is made of high-quality porcelain, but the skill to brew a perfect cup of tea only comes from years of practice, which cannot be truly expressed through the quality of an exquisite looking teapot.
There are other factors to add to this delight. Tea bags are prepared from tea leaf, milk and sugar, and then put into a sealed sachet and disposed of. A tea bag is not an evolved tea drink, as the leaves are put into an inferior format and cannot be consumed like a real tea. Hence, I agree to drink tea leaves, but I do not buy tea bags. There is one great and simple way to get tea: You can try to drink a cup with tea leaves only if the leaves are loose, as in loose leaf tea. But tea in bags is one of the problems, as it’s another thing to peel the foil, put it on the spoon, have the hot water come in contact with the tea leaves, for many a user, especially the gadgetish types, an experience is not that pleasant.
The larger question is the state of tea in India. Why are tea consumption in India so limited that tea is restricted to a cup of tea with an English breakfast or a sweet chai? The first explanation is the habit of making tea at home. Like everything else, the Indian has his own way. Tea should be steeped for a certain time and the tea leaves must be kept warm. An Indian would not be comfortable drinking tea with a cold glass of water, although this should be done according to the regulations. There is another aspect. In India, tea is consumed at the wrong time of the day. We drink tea early morning, but in a cup. The days that we use tea are the very ones we are fond of! We would like to stay awake through the night to catch up on our sleep, and after breakfast, we drink the beverage. We must put the white flag on our fingers to let others know we are not drunk. Then there is the question of tea blends. A blend is a mixture of two or more kinds of tea. It’s not possible for an individual to make such a blend in his tea. There is one recipe for having tea. It should be a cup of tea, but it should be a good one. It should not make one drowsy.
There is another kind of tea that could be made but it is not yet popular. It’s not in hot water, rather it is in cold water. It’s the ultimate type of tea, known as matcha. Matcha tea is a tea made from finely powdered tea leaves. The word ‘matcha’ is composed of two parts – ‘ma’ and ‘toa’. ‘Ma’ is a Japanese word that translates as ‘grain’ or ‘sprout’. The ‘toa’ is a sound that Japanese people make to signify the texture of food. For example, if the Japanese person is eating a piece of matcha green tea, he would say “ssssss-sho sho sho” indicating the texture of the green tea. Tea is a traditional beverage and is made in many different ways. The finest way to have a good cup of tea is to brew a traditional cup of tea, with the leaves and the water. This is the only way to experience the true taste of tea.