Mastering the art of tea for Silkroad/Cathay Pacific/Dragonair
KISHORE MARIWALAheads a promi- nent Mumbai family business and is a demanding tea connoisseur. “Teabags are not allowed in my house,” he says. “I consider them obscene.” He drinks only the finest second-flush Darjeeling tea, harvested in June, to wake up in the morning; and a floral first-flush tea harvested in mid-March to drink during the day. The 75-year-old considers Assam and Nilgiris teas inferior to Darjeeling and isn’t polite about Kenyan and Kangra teas.
He does admire Chinese green teas but thinks Darjeeling black tea is superior to Chinese black tea. He uses a glass teapot to brew and is rigorous about the process. “The water has to be very fresh, very soft, with a salinity of less than 200 ppm [parts per million]. Heat it to just below boiling and pour the required amount to a teaspoon of tea leaves. Brew for three to five minutes. Decant and enjoy.”
Unlike in China, which has a history of tea drinking stretching back millennia, commercial tea cultivation in India only started in the late 18th century. It wasn’t until the 1950s and fol- lowing a government campaign that tea drinking finally became popular with the general public. Today, India has the second-largest tea industry after China, producing 1.2 billion kilograms last year, according to Viveck Crishna, former Vice- Chairman and Managing Director of tea-auctioneering firm, J. Thomas.
Global tea drinkers may associate the country with masala chai, an Indian invention that dates back to when Indians chewed tea leaves laced with spices for their medicinal properties. Regional variations aside, the typical masala-chai recipe includes cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, fennel seeds, pepper and dried ginger, all of which are powdered together and kept in bot- tles to be added to the chai. Adrak chai, another popular form of the beverage, is made primarily from freshly grated ginger.
Today, ready-made chai-masala powders are sold at many stores and used to season batches of tea that Indian homes serve throughout the day. “We need to introduce the concept of tea as a health drink to Indians,” says Kolkata-based Nayantara Pal Choudhuri, a fourth-generation tea-estate owner and a member of the National Tea Committee of the Indian Tea Association.“We need to open more chai bars and teach the next generation professionals about the benefits of green tea, something that Chinese realised generations ago.”
Tea bars are thriving throughout India, a trend propelled partly by the Cha Bar chain in large cities. Most metropolitan areas also have independent tea rooms, such as Infinitea in Bengaluru, where young professionals ask about first-flush, second-flush and white teas before buying samples. Decorated with photographs and modern furniture, Infinitea offers a refreshing retreat from busy Cunningham Road. The clientele at Dolly’s The Tea Shop in Kolkata is no less knowledgeable, demanding blends that suit their specific preferences. A franchise called Chai Point provides flasks of tea to busy office workers, while every neighbourhood has an “auntie” with a stainless-steel container of masala chai she sells to construction workers and watchmen for pennies.
Even so, the Indian tea industry is moving with the times and even venerable estates such as Kora- kundah, high up in the Nilgiri Mountains, now sell their organic teas in packets, while online tea shops such as Tea Emporium of Darjeeling ship all over India and the world.
Meanwhile, devoted tea drinkers like Mariwala continue to cultivate relationships with auctioneers and top-end stores to ensure they continue to get the pick of the crop. For Mariwala and people like him, drinking tea is more than just a daily ritual or even a pleasurable luxury, it is a sacred act similar to the Japanese tea ceremony.
“Tea is my passion,” says Pal Choudhuri. “It is part of our heritage and the whole tea culture grooms you to become a better person.”
Health and happiness of Indians about the benefits of green tea, some- thing the Chinese realised centuries ago.”
Tea bars are thriving throughout India, a trend propelled partly by the Cha Bar chain in large cities. Most metropolitan areas also have independent tea rooms, such as Infinitea in Bengaluru, where young Indians first used tea for medicinal purposes rather than as a beverage, but it is only in the last decade or so that scientific research has studied its nutritional merits, with new health properties for tea being discovered every year.
India’s black tea is proving to be just as healthful as China’s green tea, containing vitamins A, B1, B2, as well as potassium, manganese and folic acid. Studies show that Indian black teas have an abundance of antioxidants that promote health and prevent chronic diseases. Black tea also seems to lower lipid levels, or the fat in blood linked to high cholesterol levels.
Tea contains caffeine, but it is believed that much of the substance remains in the tea leaves rather than permeating the drink. Caffeine in tea also seems to work differently from cof- fee: its components appear to calm the nervous system, producing a relaxed but focused state of mind.
Tea also has a smaller ecological foot- print than coffee. It has been estimated that 1,120 litres of water go into pro- ducing a single litre of coffee, a figure that includes the water used to grow, process and package the beans. How- ever, it only takes 120 litres of water to produce the same amount of tea.
Health and environmental benefits aside, afficionados of Indian tea treat it much as oenologists would a wine. Ter- roir, time of harvest and even the shape of the tea leaves play a role, and tasting notes can be researched online.
No matter what kind of Indian tea is chosen, experts agree that the water should not be over- or under-boiled. Rinse the teapot with a little of the water, then add a teaspoon of leaves for each cup and one for the pot, steep for three to five minutes, filter and serve. Most teas are best served black, while some Darjeeling blacks may be enjoyed with just a dash of sugar.
Shoba Narayan is an author, journalist and columnist. Besides writing, she is interested in nature, wine, gadgets and Sanskrit. Her lifelong mission is to get fit without exercising and lose weight without dieting.