Peter Calder drinks a strange brew in India

by Peter Calder / 20 September, 2016
In India, the sweet, aromatic tea can become addictive.
Tea plantations in Munnar, Kerala. Photo/Getty Images
Tea plantations in Munnar, Kerala. Photo/Getty Images

As with so many things, the Chinese thought of it first. Legends of tea drinking there go back as far as the 10th century BC. And DNA evidence establishes clearly that the steeping of the dried leaves of Camellia sinensis first happened in present-day southern China and northern Burma – hence the second part of that Latin name, which means “of China”.

The most widely and copiously consumed liquid after water – it beats beer, wine, hard liquor and coffee combined – tea comes in many forms. But the everyday tea I call gumboot comes for the most part from the highlands of southern India and Sri Lanka, and my lifelong interest in the stuff naturally led me inland in Kerala, a small state on the southwestern edge of the Indian subcontinent.

By international standards, New Zealanders are not enthusiastic tea drinkers: a list on Wikipedia puts us in 45th place, well behind the Poms in fifth place and the Irish in third. The Turks are way out in front on a per capita basis, but you can’t argue with the 1.2 billion Indians who make their country the front runner in gross consumption, knocking back 30% of the global output while exporting more than the biggest producer, China.

Yet surprisingly, commercial tea production in India was started only in the 1820s by Raj-era British planters, who built vast fortunes on introducing this new beverage to their homeland. Indians didn’t really take to it on a grand scale until the 1950s. But they’re making up for lost time now.

A chai wallah works his magic. Photo/Peter Calder
A chai wallah works his magic. Photo/Peter Calder

For people as dedicated to their morning cuppa as I am (strong with a big splash of low-fat milk), getting used to chai in India can take some serious cultural attitude adjustment. It arrives scalding hot, just off the boil, and it’s milky, sweet and aromatic – take it or leave it. I took it, by the gallon.

The best of it is made in atmospherically grubby roadside stands by a specialist known as a chai wallah (wallah is a Hindi word meaning the person who does or makes something). He – chai wallahs are overwhelmingly male – pumps a primus to fierce life, chucks leaves into furiously boiling water for a minute or so before adding about the same quantity of fresh milk and boiling the wits out of that.

The liquid will then be lent an aromatic touch with cardamom, fresh ginger or some other spice, before being strained and poured, with a theatrical flourish, from a great height into a glass; the long stream cools the liquid and it’s very entertaining, too, in a don’t-try-this-at-home way. Beware of imitations, in particular small shops’ vacuum pump thermos option, unless you’re desperate.

In Kerala, the centre of the tea business is the hill station of Munnar, 150km from the coast, a tatty clutter of tin-roofed shacks and market alleys where tourism (by Indians seeking escape from the heat in the cool mountains) has grown too fast for the infrastructure. Here you’ll find a tea museum, which includes hardware from the early days, and a working tea plant, where you can follow the process from leaf basket to bushel sack.

A film gives an interesting history of tea production in the surrounding hills, with archival photographs, though the propagandist tone is comically heavy-handed. The depiction of plantation conditions – free accommodation, education and healthcare – belongs to another era, if it existed at all. It certainly contrasted sharply with the stories of the pickers I spoke to, who earn $4 a day working dawn to dusk, but only if they meet a 21kg quota.

Still, the hills around Munnar are enchanting, particularly in the early morning as the mist clings in the valleys. The plantations are punctuated by spice gardens and stands of eucalyptus – the latter grown from seeds smuggled in from Australia in the stockings of a planter’s wife.

A word of advice: hire a car and driver. Sure, it’s more than 10 times the cost of the bus but it’s only $50 for a 24-hour day. You stop and go as you please, whenever a sight takes your fancy as snap-­worthy. And your driver will know where the clean loos and the best tea shops are.

Peter Calder travelled to India with assistance from Cathay Pacific.

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