Everywhere you look, it's tea time.
On TV, even as the
milky brew has become a call to arms in the run-up to the elections, Kareena Kapoor and Anushka Sharma, glossy locks a-flying, are endorsing green tea as lighter, healthier and hip.
Down supermarket aisles, shelves usually devoted to
kadak chai, masala chai
and value-pack CTC are making room for little boxes of green and flavoured tea. Gourmet stores are stocking Japanese sencha, African rooibos and Sri Lankan blends alongside imported brands of homegrown Darjeeling and Assam.
Doctors are prescribing white and green versions of the beverage for stress, hypertension, diabetes and post-chemo cases.
At shady slimming clinics, the first response to weight loss is now a light herbal tea. Restaurants are offering longer and longer tea selections - five-star hotels practically throw a party when shipments of prized first-flush leaves arrive. Once-lonely tea enthusiasts are finding more takers for their boutique blends, handcrafted infusions, workshops and tasting sessions.
You could argue that it's always tea time in India. Our chai-chugging compatriots remained mostly loyal to the beverage despite the profusion of cafés and coffee bars over the last decade. But you can't deny that coffee seemed comparatively hipper, its beans, roasts and equipment more suited to conspicuous consumption. Now, it seems, to prefer tea is to be cool again - but only if it's Tea V2.0: no rhapsodising over rain and pakoras, no cutting-chai clichés, no milk, no sugar, and no dunking biscuits.
NEW TO THE BREW?
Don't be scared. Try something new, say tea experts. Buy the smallest sample you can. If you dislike the taste, you've not ruined a meal or your day.
Don't use Evian. Use filtered water instead. Bottled water is pumped with minerals that interfere with the taste of the tea, often ruining a good leaf.
Don't boil it all. Black tea can take boiling temperatures. But green and white teas are delicate. You'll ruin the flavour and waste your money.
Don't dunk your tea. Instead, put your leaves in a cup and pour water just under 90 degrees C for green tea and under 75 degrees C for white tea.
Don't steep too long. Three minutes is enough to release its essence without making your drink tannic and bitter.
Don't look only at location. Quality varies widely even within Assam and Darjeeling teas. What's expensive might not always be to your taste and liking. Try them all, pick what you like and aim to taste small-batch, single-estate versions.
Don't dunk and discard. Most good tea bags are good for two cups. And leaves have enough potency for two proper servings before they deliver a weaker brew.
TEA THE HEALER
Several cultures believe tea has healing powers. Radhika Shah offers popular remedies from head to toe.
Disclaimer: The tips are based on home remedies and are not a substitute for doctor's advice.
Switch to oolong tea, which is seen as a blood cleanser and reduces inflammation. A white tea also calms the nerves and hormones that is typically in flux in patients with insulin concerns.
For skin troubles:
Wait for your used tea bag or muslin bundle of herbal tea to cool, then apply it to inflamed or sunburned skin, puffy eyes and rashes. Lavender and rose tisanes are most often used to calm skin.
Most flower teas and herbal blends are good. The Thais drink a butter blue-pea infusion that goes from curacao-blue to cobalt to deep purple to a wine red in the few minutes that it is brewed. It tastes herbal and quite nice.
For general weight loss:
Green tea is widely considered to revive metabolism and offer stimulation. But actual weightloss will depend on diet and levels of exercise.
For convalescents: White tea is often recommended as it has higher levels of vitamin C than other teas and help cleanse the blood.
To sleep better:
Many people turn to a cup of Mexican flower tea. The Mexican variation of kokum is what aids relaxation. Chamomile tea is popular too.
For stuffy noses and respiratory problems:
Sip on thyme, rosemary or sage teas as they work as expectorants.
If it's cold and you're stiff:
Heat up with Kashmiri kahwa, a smart blend of green tea and spices that also help with colds, menstrual problems and menopause. The tea has almonds and it's delicious.
Brew calming teas like jasmine, rose, spearmint, peppermint, ajwain and cumin to soothe the stomach.
For those not to hot in the bedroom:
Ginseng-oolong blends are sometimes seen as an aphrodisiac.
At the end of the day:
If your feet are aching, soak your brewed-out leaves into a tub of warm water and sink your feet in. The tea helps get rid of odours and helps refresh skin. When done, use the leaves as manure.
"Tea is the gentle drink that has gently taken over the world," says tea expert Neetu Sarin, who runs the boutique brand Tea Of Life. And in India at least, green tea has been instrumental in that takeover. Almost every brand, big or boutique, Indian or imported, hawks some variation of it. It's obvious why. For the health-conscious (but change-averse) urban Indian, a cup or two of the stuff is an easier inclusion into daily life than, say, a morning run, cardio time, counting calories, a breast self-exam or actually taking it easy. Anamika Singh of Anandini Himalaya Tea sees the brew as "a slow-down drink" as opposed to the energy boost of coffee. But Radhika Shah, proprietor of Radhika's Fine Teas puts it best: "It's the lifestyle solution to our lifestyle problems."
Even if you're not buying into the green-tea obsession - its health benefits are, after all, only loosely backed by science - you've probably considered picking up some kind of non-traditional tea or know someone who has. Vikram Grover, South Asia marketing head of Tata Global Beverages, says launching Tetley flavoured green-tea bags was an intuitive decision. "Of course people are increasingly health conscious," he says. "But India is also getting younger. People are spending large amounts of time out of the home, out of their comfort zone, and are thus more willing to break a habit and try something new."
FACTORING IN FLAVOUR
If something is new but also familiar, half the battle is already won. That explains why the new leaf has captured our fancy faster than the bean ever did. It also requires less effort than proper coffee, for which you need, at the minimum, a percolator, and at most, your own roaster, grinder and espresso machine. It's relatively risk-free - "It's easier to try Japanese tea than a Japanese meal," points out gourmet-foods importer Anil Chandhok of Chenab, which imports the organic tea brands Clipper and Clearspring. Then, there's the fact that it's mostly water. "If you've brewed yourself a cup and find that you don't like it, what have you really lost?" asks Sarin.
For many, what is lost is a sense of drinking something as tasty as chai. "The palate remains a barrier," Grover admits. So additional flavourings have been added to make the medicine go down. Of Tetley's green-tea range, the flavours that do well are honey- lemon (which delivers a perceived double dose of health and taste), aloe vera and regular green. Typhoo advertises its flavours as Moroccan mint, jasmine and lemongrass; Lipton's variants come in jasmine, mint and lemon.
Boutique blenders like Sarin of Tea Of Life use real fruits and flowers in their blends. You'll taste actual caramel with hand rolled rooibos in the Dolce Vita, and dried blueberries and hibiscus flowers along with green tea in the Blue Jade. Radhika's Fine Teas has a butterfly blue-pea tea that goes from curaçao-blue to wine red as it brews.
Several brands and blenders have gone a step further, taking tea out of the equation, to offer herbal blends that you brew just like tea. Typhoo's will infuse your cup with the taste of blackcurrant, lime or orange. Kolkata brand Jay has yummy-sounding tea bags of cranberry-apple, honey-lemon-ginseng and Kashmiri kahwa.
Grover sees green and other new kinds of teas as the secondary tea at home, one that won't replace your morning cuppa but become your afternoon indulgence. Flavoured tea in tea bags are also likely to be your 'officewala chai'. Many get their first sip of it at the workplace, where choices are limited, a colleague is likely to influence you to try something new, and the need for a quick break is higher. "All you need really is hot water from the coffee machine," Grover says.
COMING TO A BOIL
Once sold on the idea that tea can be milk-less, sugarless and delicious, Indians have been only too happy to take their enthusiasm further. At upmarket gourmet stores like Foodhall, where there's a dedicated tea bar but no café for lattes, the shelves stock 100 varieties of tea, from Sri Lankan Basilur, and UK's Newby and Clipper to the Japanese Clearspring - brands largely unfamiliar even four years ago. Swasti Aggarwal, who heads the store chain's north zone, says sales have swelled in the last 18 months. Customers buy tea and tissanes (herbal infusions that don't contain actual tea leaves but are drunk like tea) for house parties. "The Chado store within Foodhall even retails a White Pearl Jasmine tea for Rs 64,000 a kilo and finds takers," she adds.
Local tea enterprises have popped up online and in the real world. Snigdha Manchanda of Tea Trunk retails signature blends like rose oolong, vanilla black and moon white, holds tea-appreciation workshops and even leads people on Chai Walks that cover iconic tea locations in Mumbai. Tea Culture Of The World retails online and delivers your fix of full-bodied pu er and flowery tie gua yin teas across India. "At the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower in Mumbai, the first flush is greeted with much fanfare when it arrives in late April, and restaurants serving the teas see an upswing all the way until July," says deputy general manager Parveen Chander Kumar.
Chandhok, who imports the organic brands Clipper and Clearspring, says he's yet to see a tea flavour fail to get attention from customers here. Estates like Anamika Singh's Manjhee Valley have come around to the idea that there is finally a local market (albeit a tiny one) for export-quality teas, even in Jalandhar and Ludhiana. Raghav Gupta, who imports Basilur, has catered tea at high-profile weddings in Udaipur. He says tea is starting to replace chocolate when wedding cards are sent out.
Radhika Shah of Radhika's Fine Teas opened and shut her Mumbai studio, Teacup, in 2006. But things have picked up since. Tea kept her busy all through last year's wedding season - between October and December she supplied fine boutique blends to 35 weddings, bundling up 400 to 1,000 tea favours for each of them. She's also catered to a bachelor party, at which the gents skipped booze for aphrodisiac teas. "I've served high tea in Rajkot, flying in for the day with 54 kilos of raw material to serve to a group of intelligent young women," Shah says. "I could write it off as just a fad, but I've been called back five times, which means they're definitely interested in the tea."
READING THE LEAVES
For those in the business, this is reason to raise a teacup in celebration. But there's much to be done. "My teas taste like 24-year-old whiskey," Gupta claims. "But this is a country where people will still ask the equivalent of
'kya mileage hai
' when they look at price tags." Chandhok laments that tea and coffee imports are slapped with a 111 per cent duty, which more than doubles the retail price, limiting sales. Both lessen the blow on customers by promoting imported tea as being still cheaper per cup than coffee or tea at a café. A 700-gram box from Basilur will make 70 cups; Clipper tea bags are good for two cups and work out to Rs 25 each.
The promoters are also well aware that chai drinkers need plenty of hand-holding before they graduate to their wares. At the Taj, sand glass timers at the table helpfully indicate how long your black, oolong, green or white tea should be brewed and the staff is well trained to field questions from novice and pedant alike. Sarin needs to keep reminding people at her tastings that "natural flavours added to teas are gentler than synthetic additives".
Shah's tea samplers feature guides to drinking - which blend works best for what time of the day or what mood you're in. Most brands keep their quantities deliberately small, debut with the less complicated tea bags and offer samplings aplenty. Basilur made it to Nita Ambani's VVIP box at last year's T20 match, their Foodhall display has an assistant to help customers make selections, and they flood the shelves with new flavours so fans return.
Some challenges are harder than others. Teas, especially the lighter, more aromatic and floral ones, continue to be seen as a woman's drink. "Green tea is also associated with body-shape management, so more women opt for it as a weight-loss tool," Grover adds. Typhoo partnered with Lakmé Fashion Week this year. Social media chatter about tea is mostly female-driven. But there are some surprises. "I thought the demographic for Basilur would be women between age 24 and 40," he says. "But I'm seeing teens and 50-year-old men ordering it." Sarin adds that her tea workshops see equal attendance from both the sexes. "It's a misconception than tea is not for macho men."
WHAT ELSE IS BREWING?
A lot has changed very quickly. Anamika Singh's tea company is only 18 months old, but she says that "even three years ago, people did not have the palate for fine tea". Now a small quantity of their export-only leaves is set aside for sale in India. "It's something you can keep alongside your existing tea," she adds. Aggarwal, who's been closely watching the sales at Foodhall, predicts that still more will ditch milk and sugar. Tea infusers and glass kettles are selling well and she believes oolong will be the next flavour of the season.
"I see tea drinkers going up the value chain in four or five years," says Kumar at the Taj in Mumbai. This might pose a problem for both old and new fans of good tea. There's already a worldwide shortage of premium tea - only a handful of countries grow the leaf, and premium yields are hard to expand without compromising quality. To top it all, the demand for premium Indian tea is rising in the US. Pricey Indian tea shops selling single-estate teas have come up along the East Coast and the Starbucks-owned Teavana tea restaurants are fuelling the sale of quality teas there.
This is already forcing Indian companies to source tea for Indian consumption from Kenya and Sri Lanka. And as more Indians discover premium teas, it's likely that some of us will be buying Indian leaves that have been exported abroad only to be packaged, possibly flavoured and shipped back to us at a hefty premium. "It's time to take note that some of the world's best tea is grown right here in our nation," urges Sarin. "We need to discover what we have and drink it with pride!"
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From HT Brunch, March 23
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