Wednesday, February 2, 2011

T for Tea

One of the first things that people who notice about me is that I am always drinking tea. Usually this is not the typical Indian tea made with black tea powder and milk and spiced with cardomom or ginger (except when I am in Bombay, in which case I am always drinking this stuff. Then it is more of a community or clique thing, and always always a good excuse to get off work.). Rather, what I drink (read guzzle by the gallon) are the green, black, white and red teas and other herbal infusions made with fancy things that I usually cannot pronounce.

I love tea so much so that for my 25th birthday, Thom bought me a kettle to boil water for tea in, and I wasn't even mad at him! When I am home, I always boil a litre of water with my own special concoction of cinnamon quills, cloves, cardamom seeds, peppercorns, coriander seeds, fenugreek seeds and a special green tea infusion from the Himalayas with rose hips, lemon grass, aniseed, bay leaves, basil and a whole lot of other things with fancy sounding names. (Whew! You are right. I do a lot of laborious labour!) And when it is over, I boil another batch. And that is all I drink all day! Delicious stuff, I promise. And this is what I give those who stop by for a visit. (My mother is convinced that my tea is the reason that people don't stop by anymore, but that is of course, hardly true! Puhlease!!!!)

And sometimes, I brew myself a special cup using a tea bag from my prized collection of teas from the world over. And I think to myself....What a wonderful world!

Some of the tea that I have are what I have bought while travelling but most of it is what my father brings me a trunkful of tea every time he comes back from the Middle East. You get awesome tea there. I don't know why us third world countries have to export the best of everything we produce! It is a very strange attitude of deservability that we have.

I love tea so much that even when I go to a place like Goa and everyone's drinking beer or some other alcohol, I always drink a lemon ginger and honey tea (i.e. until I discovered that what they claim is honey is actually sugar water boiled to a stunning golden hue. And now I just drink lemon ginger tea.

And when I go to a supermarket and I see new flavours of tea, my heart really quickens and maybe I start salivating. Ceylon is thus one of my favourite places to visit because you get every kind of tea imaginable. I picked up so much tea from there that I still have some Rum Tea left over, 5 years since. I could wax lyrical about the Rum tea. I use it so sparingly and have it only when I really, really, really deserve it. (Like the time I watched all 24 episodes of 24 in less than 24 hours.)

But it is quite strange that I developed this fervid fascination for tea. In India, everyone drinks tea. But this is Chai (the milk and sugar with black tea variety) and infusions are not a tradition or a habit. South India is big on coffee and everyone thrives on it but tea is a daily ritual for everyone. It is served when there are visitors and usually (obviously!) during tea time at 4:00.

But it is indeed a good proclivity to have. And while I am on the topic of tea, I would like to tell you what George Orwell has to say about a good cup of tea. 

If you look up 'tea' in the first cookery book that comes to hand you will probably find that it is unmentioned; or at most you will find a few lines of sketchy instructions which give no ruling on several of the most important points. 

This is curious, not only because tea is one of the main stays of civilization in this country, as well as in Eire, Australia and New Zealand, but because the best manner of making it is the subject of violent disputes.

When I look through my own recipe for the perfect cup of tea, I find no fewer than eleven outstanding points. On perhaps two of them there would be pretty general agreement, but at least four others are acutely controversial. Here are my own eleven rules, every one of which I regard as golden:
  • First of all, one should use Indian or Ceylonese tea. China tea has virtues which are not to be despised nowadays — it is economical, and one can drink it without milk — but there is not much stimulation in it. One does not feel wiser, braver or more optimistic after drinking it. Anyone who has used that comforting phrase 'a nice cup of tea' invariably means Indian tea.
  • Secondly, tea should be made in small quantities — that is, in a teapot. Tea out of an urn is always tasteless, while army tea, made in a cauldron, tastes of grease and whitewash. The teapot should be made of china or earthenware. Silver or Britanniaware teapots produce inferior tea and enamel pots are worse; though curiously enough a pewter teapot (a rarity nowadays) is not so bad.
  • Thirdly, the pot should be warmed beforehand. This is better done by placing it on the hob than by the usual method of swilling it out with hot water.
  • Fourthly, the tea should be strong. For a pot holding a quart, if you are going to fill it nearly to the brim, six heaped teaspoons would be about right. In a time of rationing, this is not an idea that can be realized on every day of the week, but I maintain that one strong cup of tea is better than twenty weak ones. All true tea lovers not only like their tea strong, but like it a little stronger with each year that passes — a fact which is recognized in the extra ration issued to old-age pensioners.
  • Fifthly, the tea should be put straight into the pot. No strainers, muslin bags or other devices to imprison the tea. In some countries teapots are fitted with little dangling baskets under the spout to catch the stray leaves, which are supposed to be harmful. Actually one can swallow tea-leaves in considerable quantities without ill effect, and if the tea is not loose in the pot it never infuses properly.
  • Sixthly, one should take the teapot to the kettle and not the other way about. The water should be actually boiling at the moment of impact, which means that one should keep it on the flame while one pours. Some people add that one should only use water that has been freshly brought to the boil, but I have never noticed that it makes any difference.
  • Seventhly, after making the tea, one should stir it, or better, give the pot a good shake, afterwards allowing the leaves to settle.
  • Eighthly, one should drink out of a good breakfast cup — that is, the cylindrical type of cup, not the flat, shallow type. The breakfast cup holds more, and with the other kind one's tea is always half cold before one has well started on it.
  • Ninthly, one should pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea. Milk that is too creamy always gives tea a sickly taste.
  • Tenthly, one should pour tea into the cup first. This is one of the most controversial points of all; indeed in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject. The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, but I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.
  • Lastly, tea — unless one is drinking it in the Russian style — should be drunk without sugar. I know very well that I am in a minority here. But still, how can you call yourself a true tealover if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it? It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper or salt. Tea is meant to be bitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter. If you sweeten it, you are no longer tasting the tea, you are merely tasting the sugar; you could make a very similar drink by dissolving sugar in plain hot water. Some people would answer that they don't like tea in itself, that they only drink it in order to be warmed and stimulated, and they need sugar to take the taste away. To those misguided people I would say: Try drinking tea without sugar for, say, a fortnight and it is very unlikely that you will ever want to ruin your tea by sweetening it again. 

Oh well, I don't do any of the above! Except that I don't add sugar to my tea, which I agree is such a travesty! But I drink tea from all over (I just drank a cup of Apple & Ginger tea by Dr. Stuart's from England I think.) and I boil the water in a large saucepan! Oh, the tea does go through all tribulations possible with me, but maybe it senses my adulation because it never fails to satiate me and keep my soul happy and my body brimming with healthfulness! (Maybe I am exaggerating about the last point.)

So listen to George Orwell about the technique and me about the magnificence of a cup of tea and go make yourself one now!

1 comment:

  1. was wondering why havent written about tea yet? very well written. :)


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