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The cup that jeers

The Singpho and Khamti tribes straddling eastern Assam and Arunachal Pradesh were India’s first tea drinkers — and arguably the first outside China, writes Rahul.Karmakar.

india Updated: Apr 13, 2008 01:43 IST

Tell the Singphos that Robert Bruce discovered tea in the subcontinent, and they are likely to smirk. Was it 1823, they will probably ask and add: “That was seven centuries after our ancestors sipped the cuppa.”

The Singpho and Khamti tribes straddling eastern Assam and Arunachal Pradesh were India’s first tea drinkers — and arguably the first outside China, from where the British East India Company started importing tea seeds and shrubs for plantation since 1774. The attempts failed, forcing the Britons to turned to the indigenous tea bush that the Singphos grew. And Robert Bruce met Singpho king Bisa Gam to “discover” tea.

Rajesh Singpho, descendant of the original tea brewers, never tires of telling this story. Of how Bisa Gam’s army inadvertently taught pruning to planters after it slashed the bushes planted by the British for their refusal to pay royalty (the estate today is known as Bessakopie, meaning ‘where Bisa chopped off the tea plants’). And of how his ancestor Ningroola hand-processed the first consignment of tea to London in the 1870s.

Rajesh swears by Ningroola’s dhooan chang technique, albeit with a “slight twist of sophistication”, to impart an exotic smoky flavour to the organic Singpho Tea he makes. “We have gone retro to make this tea, which is somewhere between green and oolong teas. It needs some getting used to, but once you do like some Canadians and Americans, you won’t like anything else,” he says. Dhooan chang, he explains, is an extension of a typical Singpho kitchen, where fish and other eatables are smoked on a bamboo shelf hung over the hearth.

“A dash of traditionally brewed tea in homemade liquor beats Irish coffee any day. We might also be the only community that uses raw or steamed tealeaves in salad and vegetarian dishes,” Rajesh says, adding tea is among four plants that must be grown in the courtyard of a Singpho house.

True to tradition, Singpho Tea is a community venture on 125 bighas at Inthen, 19 km from oil-and-coal-rich Margherita in Assam’s Tinsukia district. The fully organic small tea estate is also about the future of the beverage — in the form of a compacted, 5 gm coin. “Roughly, 1 gm tea makes one cup. A Tea Coin makes five cups at a time, can be kept aside and dipped for another five up to 20 cups,” explains Rajesh. No wonder, the Coin is raking in the greenbacks.