Before I visited India, if you were to ask me what images I most associated with the sub-continent, I’d have replied something along the lines of “elephants, spirituality, and tea.”
Those of you who know me know that I like tea. A lot. I love that everyone has their own little ceremony of making tea, whether it’s loose leaf or bags, if the tea is brewed in a pot or a cup/mug (and if the cup/mug is warmed beforehand), the length of time the tea is left to brew (the best expression I ever heard describing strong tea was ‘has it steeped long enough to let a mouse skate across it?’), if milk is added before or after the tea is poured, if the bag is squeezed or not, if the tea’s temperature is scalding or at room,… and this is reflected culturally as well as individually in how the tea is made. The diversity, timings and passion with which all the actions of making tea are carried out, not to mention the discussions and debates on how to make that perfect cuppa, are just great. There’s even been a word to describe the fear one can get from being offered a badly made cup of tea – tepidophobia.
About 130 kms east of Fort Kochi, the hill station of Munnar sits amid the undulating glossy green of the tea plantations. Rather than be one flat expanse of green, the bushes grow in such a way that each hill’s contours are defined in lines – rather like an OS map. And the tea bush, being one of the sturdiest plants for this climate, clings to every available space, even vertically over a 6-foot drop, leading me to wonder at the nimbleness of the tea-pickers.
“How many of you drink tea?” the guide asked. There was a resounding group nod and sounds of affirmation.
“So you all know how to make a cup of tea, correctly, yes?”
This time there was some hesitancy rippling through the group.
“Are you certain?”
With smiles, we listened as he outlined that too many tea drinkers brew the tea too strong with the wrong temperature of water.
“The Chinese, they know the best, but we in India know almost as much.”
He produced a flask from his belt.
“This is green tea. Very good for health. But only if brewed right. Teabags,…” he made a disparaging sound.
Reaching down he grabbed at a tray nestled between the mounds of volumptous leaves.
“You take a pinch, a pinch only! No more! Otherwise the tea is too bitter and upsets the stomach. (At this my ears pricked up, as that had always been my issue with green tea and why I never drank it.) “You take a teeny tiny pinch for this water, not boiling, and add in here (there was a diffuser set into the lid of the flask) in the morning. In the afternoon, the tea is still good to drink. Give you long life,” he ended with a smile.
[For more pictures of my jaunt around Munnar check out the album The Sublime South.]