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Like tea, life must be sipped, never gulped!

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By Kulbhushan Kain

Many years ago I invited a Scot to my residence for tea and snacks. I offered him the standard choice, “Steve (name changed), would you like to have coffee or tea?”

Prompt came the reply “I will settle for tea”.

With tea we served him the traditional Indian spread – samosas, dhokla, and, yes – even hot jalebis!

However, I noticed he was not sipping it. I prodded him, “Steve, I think your tea is getting cold.”

He looked at me and then at the tea and asked, “Is that tea”?

Yes, I had served him tea – but not the kind he had ever had. I had served him “chai”, which is a black, tea-based drink made from leaves harvested and brewed through a process known as “decoction”, during which buffalo milk and water are brought to a boil with loose tea granules. During winter or monsoon times, it gets flavored with “adrak”, or “elaichi”! It can no longer technically be called tea! And, yet, this is the tea that nearly everyone in the Indian subcontinent is addicted to, not the least me!

All tea falls into six general categories determined by the leaves and processing methods used: green tea, black tea, white tea, yellow tea, oolong tea, and dark, or “pu’erh, tea”, but more styles of tea exist than anyone could name.

In India, our tea is sweet, and salty tea is a foreign concept! “Po cha”, also known as butter tea, is closely associated with Tibet though it’s popular throughout the Himalayan region. To make traditional Po cha, black-tea leaves from the Pemagul region are boiled, and fresh yak butter and salt are added creating a thick tea that is enjoyed from bowls rather than mugs.

In Argentina, tea is called “Mate” and is more than just a drink. It’s almost impossible to walk down a street in Argentina without seeing hordes of people sipping mate out of hollowed-out gourds through metal straws known as “bombillas”, which also serve as sieves for the loose yerba mate leaves used to brew the drink.

In Japan, tea is called “matcha” tea. Matcha tea ceremonies are deeply-traditional events and involve several stages. Guests are ushered into a room to purify their hands and mouths, then greeted by their host. After this, bright, green and mildly earthy matcha powder is mixed with hot water. A single bowl is then passed between guests until it’s empty, and the ceremony ends with a final bow.

Earl Grey is a catchall for any black tea flavored with bergamot oil, giving it a distinctly bitter, citrus flavor. There is some debate among Brits as to how it should be prepared: traditionalists will tell you to bring water to just below a boil in a nonreactive vessel like a glass kettle, steep loose-leaf tea for three to five minutes, and serve with lemon and sugar; others will advise you to use milk instead of lemon, though the jury is still out on whether you should pour the milk before or after the tea! This is the variety Steve was brought up on and many of us in India get served in “upper end” houses and hotels in India and abroad!

In Russia, tea is brewed in a “Samovar”. A samovar is a metal urn, often ornately decorated, designed to heat water and brew tea. Samovars have been focal fixtures of Russia for centuries. Russians even believed samovars possessed souls because of the noises they made while heating water, sounds colloquially referred to as “singing”.

The most modern form of tea is “bubble tea”, which has spread like wildfire in Taiwan. It consists of slurping chewy mild-flavored balls of tapioca starch called “pearls” with big gulps of milky, sugary tea! It has become increasingly popular in American cities.

Coming back to India, we mostly drink “chai”! It’s thick, syrupy, dark brown, granular and flavored. You can’t get rid of it from your system – we get exposed to it at a very young age and it stays with us. (Remember Brooke Bond and “Wah Taj”?)
The best chai I have had have been in small “khokhas” (shops)! Gulabji in Jaipur is famous all over India – one has to queue up for a cup of tea at this inconspicuous tea stall. SriKrisna’s tea stall at Peer Gate in Bhopal makes excellent tea as well. He makes it in a very fascinating way – he strains the leaves through a thin cloth and squeezes it repeatedly!

Midway between Dehradun and Delhi is Mansurpur. It has an overcrowded tea stall named
“Chai ka Nukkad”. He sells tea in earthen “kulhars” (earthen tea cups)! I always stop there for an excellent cup of typical Indian chai!
No one can call themselves an Indian if they haven’t traveled in a sleeper class on Indian railways! And if you have – you will find an AH Wheeler Book Store staring at you at every station, amidst the shouts of, Chai lelo, Chai! And the best chai one can get is at the railway platforms of Lalitpur – a stop between Delhi and Bhopal It’s famous for its chai. I always used to be woken up by the hawker’s calls and drink not one but two “kulhars” of tea. After finishing it, I would always make sure that I broke the earthen pot so that it could not be recycled.

The noise of it breaking (like a cracker burst) gave me a thrill and made me feel like a schoolboy!

Like whiskey, tea has an important lesson for all of us – to enjoy life, don’t gulp it down. Enjoy it slowly – sip by sip!

My father used to say, “Always have a cup of tea or a bath in the morning. You will always feel energetic.”

“True, Dad!”

(Kulbhushan Kain is an award winning educationist with more than 4 decades of working in schools in India and abroad. He is a prolific writer who loves cricket, travelling and cooking. He can be reached at kulbhushan.kain @gmail.com)