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The Indian tea party

There are two fundamental misconceptions about tea in India and both date back to the British Raj. The first is our view that tea is essentially an Indian drink, our contribution to the British way of life. The second misconception has to do with the concept of high tea. Vir Sanghvi writes.

india Updated: Apr 16, 2011 20:23 IST
Vir Sanghvi

There are two fundamental misconceptions about tea in India and both date back to the British Raj. The first is our view that tea is essentially an Indian drink, our contribution to the British way of life. After all, the best tea in the world is grown in Darjeeling. Indians survive on cups of milky tea. Every office has its own tea boys and every railway station has its


stall. What’s more, the term chai has become part of our vernacular, being adapted as a short-hand for all sorts of things: for instance, a small bribe is referred to as ‘


in much of India.

This is a reasonable view and even the British promote tea on the basis of its India connection. But it is also a fundamentally flawed reading of history. The truth is that there is no ancient Indian tea-drinking tradition. It was the British who were introduced to tea in China and who brought it to India, planting it in such places as Darjeeling and Assam.

Till the end of the First World War, the Indian tea production was meant for the export market and the per capita consumption of tea in India was one/tenth the consumption in Britain. The British did their best to promote tea, aggressively marketing it all over India but it was not till the 1930s that it became a truly Indian drink, one that was also popular in the villages.

It is a tribute to the Indian capacity to adapt and somehow Indianise everything that tea is so much a part of our tradition these days. The way in which we make our tea – cooked, milky and sweet – is uniquely Indian and the masala chai is an indigenous invention. More Indians drink tea these days than do Brits. The great international tea companies – Tetley, for instance – are now owned by Indians. And the plantation business is largely free of British control.

Green tea

The second misconception has to do with the concept of high tea. This is a term we throw about with cheerful abandon all over India. When the President of India hosts a tea party at Rashtrapati Bhavan we do not call it a garden party as they would at Buckingham Palace where the tradition originated. Instead, we describe it as a high tea. Governors also throw high teas. And now, fancy hotels charge huge sums for high teas at their restaurants.

In fact, high tea is a peculiarly British term, loaded with class symbolism. In the UK, high tea was the name given by the working classes to their evening meal. This was usually served at around 6 pm when the man of the house returned from work and felt the need for some nourishment. Generally, this would be the only meal of the evening and the family would turn in early because the man had an early start the next day.

While tea was a part of high tea, this could be a substantial meal involving meat pies and other savoury items of the kind not normally associated with afternoon tea. To this day, the class-obsessed British treat any reference to the evening meal as ‘tea’ as unquestionable proof of a working-class upbringing.

The Queen, for instance, would be appalled to have a garden party at Buckingham Palace described as a high tea. So would most upper-class English people. Though the term is little-used these days, the sort of repast Indians describe as high tea (tea plus sandwiches and pastries) is properly termed ‘low tea’. Because the name sounds a little silly, the term ‘afternoon tea’ is usually preferred.

Once you get into the area of afternoon tea, you get all the variations that the English middle classes so delight in. A ‘cream tea’ is an afternoon tea that includes scones (pronounced ‘skons’ not ‘skoans’ – the English care about these things) and clotted (never whipped) cream. A strawberry tea is an afternoon tea to which strawberries have also been added. And so on.

Part of the ritual of afternoon tea is the nature of the sandwiches. Ideally, they should be made from slices of white bread (the English middle classes lack the expertise of Europeans when it comes to making interesting loaves) from which the crusts have been removed. Smoked salmon is an acceptable filling but watercress is integral to the dish.

These days, hardly anybody in England bothers with afternoon tea – a cup of coffee and a chocolate biscuit are much preferred. But the tradition survives at hotels and so-called tea rooms for the benefit of tourists who do not mind paying vast sums of money for bakery products and weak tea.

But the real success of afternoon tea lies in the export market. It survives in India as high tea and it is in this form that you find it all over the Far East. At great hotels in the Orient, afternoon tea (sometimes called high tea) is a tradition. At the Peninsula in Hong Kong, guests queue up in the lobby to partake of afternoon tea. At the Oriental in Bangkok, tea in the Authors’ Lounge is the hotel’s signature experience.

Over the years, the exact nature of this tradition has morphed into forms that are less and less English. At the Eastern and Oriental hotel in Penang, they served me whipped rather than clotted cream with the scones while maintaining that they had retained the tradition of the British Empire. At a fancy establishment in Kuala Lumpur, they threw in three flavoured crème brulees along with the afternoon tea. In Singapore, I’ve been given some kind of curry puff along with the tea.

Speaking for myself, I am a bit of an agnostic on the subject of afternoon tea. I find it very difficult to get excited by a ritual that is so steeped in the British class system and is – if you do it properly – so rigorously restricted in its specifications. Life is too short to cut the crusts off slices of bread (actually, life is too short to eat English white bread). Scones are possibly the most over-rated bakery item ever. And there are only so many cucumber or smoked salmon sandwiches you can reasonably eat without throwing up.

There are only two ways in which it is acceptable to do afternoon tea. The first is as a sort of send-up. Pamela Timms, the food blogger and brilliant pastry chef, sometimes organises

Uparwali Chais

(geddit?) which are an excuse to serve delicious baked dishes, both sweet and savoury. I have only been to one of her Uparwali Chais, organised in the lawn of a European diplomat’s house, but I remember eating far too much because the food was so good. (I must declare an interest: Pamela and her husband Dean Nelson are friends, which means, among other things, that I get to eat her wonderful cupcakes.)

The other sensible way of doing afternoon tea is to go all Indian. One of my lasting regrets about the passage of time and the extension of the working day is that most of us have lost the tradition of having tea at home in the afternoons.

In my youth, this experience did not take the rigorously structured form of English afternoon tea but included a variety of freshly-made Indian snacks. There were nearly always




as we called them at home) made from potatoes, chillies or sliced onions fried till they were very crisp. (In Bombay in the 60s, the onion


were known as Khopoli


after the village on the Bombay-Poona road where everyone always stopped for tea.)

Gujaratis like deep-frying so a lot of the other snacks were just as unhealthy. There were

batata vadas

made from mashed potato to which green coriander chutney and


had been added. There were small


made from peas and French beans (phansi). And we had khari poori, a crisp

masaledaar poori

that contrasted nicely with the sweetness of the tea.

I am told that in many Gujarati homes it was not uncommon to keep the ingredients for bhel or

dahi batata puri

at home and to whip these out to make a quick round of


at tea-time. Sadly, my parents were not that imaginative and I was denied these tea-time delights just as I never got to eat another Gujarati tea-time favourite,

ragda pattice

, at home.

We were not big on cakes or pastries and when biscuits were served they tended to be basic: Marie, Nice, Thin Arrowroot or (in which case I ignored the

batata vadas

) Bourbon.

Looking back, I sometimes wonder how we managed to eat any dinner after consuming a tea-time repast of this magnitude. And dinner in Gujarati households was always a full meal that included both


and rice as well as vegetables, a


and a


. Perhaps we ate smaller quantities at dinner. Certainly I do not see how we could have stuffed our faces again only a few hours after a Gujarati tea.

When I see Indian restaurateurs trying to imitate their East Asian counterparts and organise cream teas, I always wonder why they bother with a British tradition that is already dead in England. Afternoon tea is a great institution. But its true greatness lies in its Indianness. So, hold the cucumber sandwiches and throw away the scones. Bring on the

batata vadas

and the onion