When I think of tea, I am usually on a plane headed for Kolkata, cursing the British for inciting that anti-tea rebellion in my country some 200-odd years ago. I then wouldn’t have the nearly universal pains that come whenever you travel outside of North America or Europe: caffeine withdrawal. It’s never pretty, and in the sticky heat that invades Kolkata prior to monsoon season, caffeine withdrawal feels like malaria.
I usually brace myself for this event by having a final, top-of–the-line, Starbucks’s Ethiopian bold at the airport before our departure. I add lots of sugar and cream and savor each sip, knowing that it will be the last time for a while that I will enjoy a high on the level of crack cocaine. Alas, our Starbuck’s barista was a trainee, and my anticipation dissipated as I tasted something more in keeping with Nescafe decaf. Transition nearly complete.
So, when I woke up the next day on the other side of the Atlantic, and the flight attendant rattled ‘round with the drink cart, I didn’t bother asking for coffee. Already, my legs involuntarily twitched, my armpits gave off a pungent aroma, and my back ached from the indentation made by my armrest. All I really wanted then was to be home, stretched out under a blanket on my couch, with an hour of quiet, a book in hand and my cat, Yola, snoozing on my stomach.
This is what tea is good for: soothing your soul. It’s pleasant; it’s mildly invigorating. It’s peace in a cup.
It turns out that my image of tea is not entirely a product of brainwashing by the Celestial Seasonings marketing team. In fact, tea was first spread across Asia through Buddhist monks, who discovered that the mildly caffeinated drink helped them in their daily meditations. Tea became the most widely drunk beverage in the world precisely because it has a pleasant aroma, and is stimulating just enough for people to feel invigorated, but without the side effects of feeling drunk, dehydrated or jittery. The famous tea estates of Darjeeling, about a 9-hour drive north of Kolkata, not only were suited the cool hills of the lower Himalayas, they also made for a relaxing summer destination for the British and a therapeutic landscape for the Raj’s largest sanatorium that once stood outside the city.
Indians, of course, are almost ubiquitously tea drinkers, and none more than Kolkatans themselves. Cha is taken throughout the day, at home, on the street, in businesses. Tea running is a paid occupation here, and many business transactions must take place over tea. When we settled into chairs across the desk of a local travel agent a few years back, ready for a lengthy wait to make sure our papers were in order, the man clicked his fingers and a scrawny boy in a dirty shirt flew down the stairs and came back in minutes with steaming clay cups of street tea. In the same way, Surya was invited for tea while picking out meat at the butcher’s. As in Arabic culture, having tea over business transactions in Kolkata is a way to solidify an ongoing business relationship.
Thousands of standing-only tea stalls dot the city and their most striking feature is the pile of rustic, terracotta cups that rises to one side of a stall as the day progresses. Patrons simply drink from the cups, then throw them onto the pile when they are done. It’s an ingenious way to keep plastic and paper from over-running the city. At the end of the day the broken shards of clay are collected, melted down, molded, and fired again into cups for the next day.
Though tea’s origins are in the low, eastern hills of the Himalayas, stretching through the Indian state of Assam, Bhutan, and bordering China, tea drinking did not become habit across India until the British arrived. Having discovered the delights of tea through trade with China, the British found themselves addicted by the 18th century. It was difficult to keep the liquor flowing. England was growing and Chinese production methods were too slow to meet demands. The squeeze led to the tea tax and the aforementioned Tea Party disaster in Boston.
Ironically, the growing population of Britain was so reliant on tea that British traders flooded the Chinese market with Opium from India in order to buy back tea for eager Brits at home. Of course, finding itself with a country plagued by serious addicts, the Chinese closed its markets to Britain, hoping it would get the message. It didn’t. Britain, being full of a different kind of addict, sent its forces to crush the Chinese. This is better known as the Opium War, and it was a coup for Britain at the time because China was then the most powerful empire in the world. Britain was a tiny island. The victory secured Britain with not only the port of Hong Kong but also a ready supply of tea. Still, trust was broken, and the British learned never to rely too heavily upon China for anything, particularly tea. Besides, they concluded, with their superior industrial technology, they could make a better job of tea production anyways.
So, the scramble to find new tea sources began. By the late 18th century, Britain was sending out a coterie of explorers in search of the coveted tea plant camellia sinensis. They finally found a similar variety in the northern parts of Assam. The British promptly captured the territory from the ruling monarch, culled the forest to make room for tea plantations, devastated the local Assamese population, and carted in tea workers from China and Kolkata on filthy trains, where sometimes more than half of the recruits died. Another percentage died a few months later from the grueling ten-hour days or the squalid shacks that were their sleeping quarters. Thus the exploitation associated with tea production began.
Eventually, the British experimented with tea production in Darjeeling. It took off and ended the Chinese monopoly of tea. Today, Darjeeling tea is considered the “champagne” of teas, and India is the largest producer and consumer of tea in the world. The center of that action is Kolkata. Tea auctions and tea tastings are always happening in the city. Bengalis have thus learned to be picky about their tea. Though you’ll receive the ubiquitous cardamom-flavored, milky tea on the streets, in homes or upscale tea shops most people prefer their tea straight, with few additives to ruin the flavor.
To some extent this world is changing. With globalization, and in particular more investment from America, coffee has begun to make inroads into India. Though the majority of Indians still drink tea, coffee has come to be seen as a hallmark of 21st century sophistication. Coffee bars akin to Starbucks dot the more affluent areas of Kolkata, though most customers sit at tables drinking smoothies and milkshakes rather than coffee. It’s the caché that counts. Tea still dominates the Bengali life and, as with most other tea-drinking communities, Bengalis have elevated tea drinking to high culture. Taking tea is almost synonymous with the art of adda, a term which has no true English equivalent. It is the art of good talk or intellectual exchange, and it is best served over a steaming cup, or three, of cha. Or, in my case, sometimes a good ol’ cup of coffee.