Thursday, 23 April 2020

T is for Terai...Terrain.... n ... Tree

The first song is a track by Thaikkudam Bridge called Fish Rock – and fish being a staple in the eastern, coastal parts of India, resonated with me massively. :) The second is Tunak Tunak Tun by Daler Mehndi, another foot tapping Bhangra Pop number. Have a listen -

Totally. Take. Tea.

My object today is not this cup, but its contents. That is a hot cup of delicately flavoured Darjeeling Tea, taking its name from the Terai (foothills) district of Darjeeling in West Bengal, where it is grown. I take it without milk and sugar, most Indians add both. And there is a megapopular version of 'masala chai' or spiced tea, an Indian recipe now drunk the world over. Tea is an integral part of Indian culture, with tea-shops and tea vendors being ubiquitous. Chai-pani (tea-n-water) is what is given the first thing to guests, chai-biskut (tea-n-biscuit) or chai-nashta (tea-n-breakfast) is what most  middle-class Indians start their day with. India is totally in and totally into its tea!

India is the second largest tea grower in the world and produces around 30% of the world output, but then also consumes the largest quantity of whatever it produces within the country. The balance is sold for premium prices in the tea auction houses first in Calcutta and then in London. Tea is firmly a British legacy. Darjeeling is one of the varieties, others include Assam and Nilgiri, after the names of the growing regions. 

It is known that some varieties of the Tea tree are native to the Eastern zones of India, tea grew wild in the forests of Assam from ancient times. Tea leaves were used by some Assamese/Eastern tribes for their medicinal value. The evidence is vague however and not well documented. The origin of tea as a general beverage lies in China, the word 'Chai' used for tea in India is in itself of Chinese origin. Even if the Indian tribal tea culture existed before the British, it is incontrovertible that it was the East India Company that brought large tracts of the Himalayan foothills under commercial cultivation in the early 1800s. Before this Indian tea consumption was a limited scale activity.

So. What then did the Indians drink with their breakfast before the British introduced the 'cuppa'? One type of beverage was milk based - milk straight on its own and with additives like saffron, ground up cashew/pistachio paste etc. The second type was milk derivatives - lassi made from yoghurt and chhach, buttermilk based drinks. Then there were a legion of others non-milky types - nimbupani, sweetened lime juice, aam pannah - drink based on cooked/uncooked mangoes, pulped and liquefied. They drank fruit juices and extracts of medicinal leaves, spiced with cumin, cardamom, black pepper and myriad other spices and seasoned with Himalayan rock salt. And finally a whole heap of fermented, alcoholic drinks made from staple grains, toddy palms, nuts and fruits. Going back into the deep past, the Rig Veda mentions the Somras (lit. juice from pressing the plant), a ritual drink mentioned in both Hinduism and Zoroastrianism and possibly obtained from a mixture of cannabis and/or poppy - the actual plant is no longer known and is hotly debated among scholars.

Anyways, back to tea. Tea drinking originated in China in deep antiquity, legends of origin go back to 2700 BCE. The earliest written records are dated to around 200 BCE, so the Chinese have been drinking tea for more than 2000 years at the very least. Tea was introduced in Britain from mid-17th century, as the concept of coffeehouses became popularised. Most coffeehouses included both coffee and tea on their menus - coffee had arrived from the Middle East, and tea came in from China. The Chinese controlled the exports and guarded cultivation extremely closely, so that for the first couple of centuries tea remained a drink for the super rich. By the 1750s, the British were importing huge quantities of tea from China at an equally huge cost. Desperate by the 1770s, they were already exploring possibilities of growing their own tea.

They found that they could grow opium in India, export it to China and use the surplus generated to buy luxury Chinese goods like tea, silk and porcelain. But the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century forced their hand and created an urgent need for the British to break the Chinese monopoly.

Tea-pickers in Dooars, West Bengal.
The British did that some Chinese seeds/cuttings in a most daring heist and planting them in India. Tea likes well-drained soils but needs a humid climate and a hefty amount of rainfall - as such the sloping foothills provided the ideal conditions.  However, the smuggled Chinese shoots refused to put up with Indian heat and promptly wilted. So then the British found the native tea varieties that grew in the forests of Assam and set up tea plantations in the Brahmaputra Valley. The first 12 chests of Assam Tea were exported to Britain in 1838 for auction. The first joint stock tea company - Assam Company was set up in London. In 1835, land in Darjeeling district was granted to the British by the Chogyal of Sikkim and the Chinese varieties did better there in the cooler climate of the higher altitudes. And commercial tea cultivation started in Darjeeling by the 1850s. From those first twelve chests in 1838, tea production rose to over 35,000 Tonnes by the close of 1880s. Today there are more than 13,000 tea gardens producing 1.5 million Tonnes of tea annually, and over 2 million people employed in the cultivation of tea in India. The Indian tea industry now includes many global tea brands and is the exclusive producer of Darjeeling and Assam tea prized by tea connoisseurs.

How exactly did this happen? The 1850s saw the start of railway infrastructure by the colonial government as well as the first factories being set up in India. Once tea production took off and gardens were established, the British with their canny business instincts and indefatigable energy soon realised the untapped potential that lay in the domestic market. They set about some serious market development by 

1) distributing sachets of tea with instructions in local language on how to prepare and consume to the small towns and villages 

2) introducing tea vendors in the passenger trains and railway stations and 

3) encouraging factory owners to allow the workers 'tea-breaks' in the working day.

However, Indians did not at first take to the British version of tea with milk and sugar. The vendors soon created their own recipe - boiling the tea leaves and adding various spices like ginger, cardamom and black pepper. That engaged the Indian palate and imagination and tea drinking took off in a big way. Gradually, tea-shops became a meeting place and a focal point for people to gather together, socialise, debate the issues of the day. Tea became a ritual observed morning and evening, taken in the home, at the workplace and at tea-vendors. And in the 21st century,  a new generation of tea-entrepreneurs have upgraded and repurposed the Indian tea-shop into slick looking avatars like Chai Point, Chaayos and others.  The superpopularity of tea in India is all set to continue.

A-Z Challenge 2020