High Tea at the Elgin in Darjeeling, West Bengal
Celestial Seasonings, the Colorado-based tea company, has a flavour (my very favourite tea flavour) called Bengal Spice. Two years ago, when I was just deciding to come to India, a friend of mine would come over and we would sit on my couch in Vancouver, talking over what it might be like. Bengal Spice is a delicious tea, strong and sweet and a little bit spicy when brewed with boiling boiling water, and I would drink it and imagine myself in India.
Street chai at a roadside stall in Calcutta, West Bengal
Fast forward four months. I showed up to Big Bazaar, India’s favourite chain supermarket, wildly excited to stock my new Indian kitchen with every type of delicious and even more authentic version of Bengal Spice. Only that’s not what I found. Most of the Indian tea aisle consists of kilo packages of loose tea powder - unflavoured, and requiring a bit of skill to brew properly.
A worker sorts tea leaves in Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
I bought a package of tea, a tetra-pack of unrefrigerated unpasteurized milk (that’s how it comes in India), some large-grain sugar (we don’t get granulated here), and a small blue box labelled ‘chai masala’. I was determined to learn to brew expert-level masala chai. I read the instructions on the box, I researched recipes on the internet, I quizzed my coworkers and every auntie I met, but the concoctions I brewed up rarely tasted like anything I wanted to drink.
My motorcycle driver, Raja, helped me cool down my tea at sunrise in Munnar, Kerala
Part of it is that I like a full cup of tea, but due to the high sugar content of masala chai, most of it is served in bite-sized glasses. I got rid of the sugar, and would brew milky tea with fresh ginger grated in, and sometimes a little bit of honey. I would drink it in the mornings before work, sitting on the beautiful balcony of my first apartment.
The first tea plantations I visited were in Munnar. Sprawling green hills and valleys carpeted in luxurious emerald tea bushes surrounded me. Over my four days there I hired a personal motorcycle driver, and we would stop on the side of the highway, wander into the plantations, and sip fresh cups of sugary black chai. It felt surreal, being surrounded by the richness of green leaves and blue sky. I would pluck a few leaves and rub them between my fingers, releasing one of my favourite smells - the rich heady brew of unfermented tea leaf.
A tea plantation outside Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
In December I travelled with my parents to Sri Lanka - formerly the British colony of Ceylon, as in Ceylon tea. In the West we tend to think of Ceylon tea as the most basic, unadorned tea, meant for cheap hotel breakfast buffets and car repair waiting rooms. But Ceylon tea, as brought over by the British, was considered very highly, and sitting in our grande colonial hotel in the tea plantation mountain town of Nuwara Eliya, we sipped on china glasses full of lovely Ceylon teas, paired with squares of fresh jaggery.
The Aloobari Tea Estate in Darjeeling, West Bengal
One of the most highly regarded teas in the world is Darjeeling tea, grown only on 87 different plantations high in the Himalayas around the Bengali town of Darjeeling. I had long dreamed of visiting Darjeeling - for the old-world grandeur, the rolling tea valleys, the backdrop of Himalayan peaks. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting, although it was lovely.
The Happy Valley Tea Estate in Darjeeling, West Bengal
The predominant culture of Darjeeling is that of the Ghorkas, a Nepali tribe brought over by the British to work the tea plantations. In the mid-1800’s, the British (particularly the Scots) began to seriously develop the Darjeeling area into tea plantations, after less-successful experiments in the state of Assam. Darjeeling began as a summer retreat for families living in Calcutta, which at the time was the heart of British India. In 1840, only 25 British families were living in Darjeeling, and so they enlisted the help of thousands of Ghorka labourers who worked the land for them.
A tea picker outside Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
Which brings up the issue of tea production and colonialism. While the original labourers who came 200 years ago may not have had such a say in the matter, today the Ghorkas are quite politically active, many calling for the creation of an independent state of Ghorkaland. Many tourists come expecting to experience the British legacy, and ignore the vibrant Ghorka flavours of the town including the brilliant prayer flag-lined Mahakala Temple rising high above the old British main square.
High Tea at the Elgin in Darjeeling, West Bengal
My last afternoon in Darjeeling I sat, completely alone, in the lavishly plush tea lounge of the Elgin Hotel, sipping high tea out of a heavy bronze pot, and nibbling on tea sandwiches which were a curious mix of British tea party and Mumbai street food. I had a lovely time, but what does it mean that my idea of a place is based so fully on a culture that’s no longer there? What does it mean that something so integral to Indian society as a good cup of chai is rooted in something so foreign from the high mystique of the Himalayas?
A tea picker in Munnar, Kerala
Besides the question of political sovereignty, it brings up questions of labour. In Munnar I visited plantation towns where migrant labourers live in hot metal shacks with their children. The women work long days, their sacks of tea leaves hung from straps around their foreheads. The sacks can weigh 30 kilos, and they balance them around their heads all day. Tea bushes grow on hillsides climbing steeply from the road, and laced through by tiny dirt paths which the labourers climb up and down in their broken flip flops. While I sat in my plush armchair at the Elgin, I thought of the tea pickers, shivering around fireplaces in their shacks just outside. And then I went back to sipping my tea and enjoying the real clotted cream on my biscuits and jam.
Let’s talk about the different types of tea. All tea - white, green, and black - comes from the same plant. White tea is unfermented, green tea is lightly fermented, and black tea goes through the full fermentation process. As a result, black teas have a stronger taste, while white teas retain the most antioxidants. Only the top three leaves per branch are picked for white and green teas, while coarser leaves can be used for black.
Fermented leaves at a factory outside Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
After the fermentation of the leaves, they undergo one of two processes - rolling, or what’s known as CTC (cut-tear-curl). These processes prepare the leaves for brewing, and result in various sizes of leaves after. The smallest size, low-quality tea dust, is either put into teabags or sold domestically, while the largest size, full leaves, are sold for exorbitant prices at the international tea auction. The sizes in between are packaged accordingly.
A plantation house with a Himalayan backdrop outside Darjeeling
Which brings the whole idea of contemporary class into the picture. Way back in the early 1800’s, when tea was only brewed in China and the British imported it by sea, it was seen as an extreme luxury. Only the very wealthy could afford to drink even small amounts of it, but as the Empire spread and tea began to be grown in other countries (including British India and Ceylon/Sri Lanka) it became more affordable for everyday Brits, as well as for the colonialists inhabiting British India.
The Glenloch Tea Plantation outside Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
Upper-class Indians began to partake in tea drinking as a way of advancing social standing with the British officers. Through the decades it began to trickle down, adjusting to the tastes of the masses with the additions of milk and heaping spoonfuls of sugar. Although 70% of Indian produced tea is consumed domestically, it’s primarily the low-grade tea dust, while the higher qualities are exported internationally. On every street corner in India, a chaiwalla can be seen brewing kettles of steaming dust-grade masala chai, selling it to the masses in disposable Dixie cups or drink-and-throw clay kulhads.
One morning in Darjeeling I was sitting in Glenary’s, a popular cafe left over from British times. Two Indian boys sat at the next table over, upper-middle class city boys come for a weekend getaway. They ordered a heavy brass pot of Darjeeling, just like the one at the Elgin High Tea. They weren’t quite sure what to do with it - to let it brew, for how long, how to pour it through the small sieve to filter out the leaves. The waiter came to help them. They sipped it and looked at each other, obviously not enjoying the taste but too embarrassed to add sugar. They gingerly took a few more sips, before one of them gave up and added several spoons into his cup.
A chai seller in Munnar, Kerala
It’s a strange tension, this line between ideals and reality. Tea plantations are a dreamscape, a wonderland of colours and textures and landscapes and nostalgia for a reality that no longer exists and maybe never did. Perhaps that reality lies more in the grimy black kettles and steaming masala chai that I get for 6 rupees on my way to work. Perhaps it lies more in the Ghorka labourers, working day after day plucking tea leaves on sheer mountainsides for a fraction of the selling price. Or perhaps reality is right at home in elaborate tea lounges, being served tea scones by people who will never get to eat real tea scones. Perhaps it’s in Vancouver, sitting on a couch sipping Bengal Spice and dreaming about the future.
*If you're looking for that definitive tea plantation experience, but don't necessarily have two years to go chasing tea leaves, I would hands down recommend Munnar. It was one of my favourite places in all of India. Nuwara Eliya in Sri Lanka would be a second, followed by Darjeeling. While Darjeeling does have the history and nostalgia and mystique, as a tea destination it is quite different from other places, and also the steepness makes it far more difficult to explore. But like anywhere in this part of the world, the weather makes a huge difference and the seasons are distinct, so do check what time you'll be going.
Tea bushes grow by a waterfall outside Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
The road cuts right through endless tea plantations in Munnar, Kerala
A view of Darjeeling town with the High Himalayas in the background
The Aloobari Tea Plantation was one of the first to come up around Darjeeling. Planters live right in the village and work as a cooperative
Fresh leaves in Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
Tea pickers outside Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
Munnar is lined with roadside shops offering fresh brewed tea and snacks
Going for a stroll through the plantations in Munnar, Kerala
High Tea at the Elgin in Darjeeling
The Aloobari Tea Estate in Darjeeling
The steep cliffs of Darjeeling are dramatically different from other plantations I visited
Glenary's Cafe in Darjeeling offers panoramic views of Mount Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world
At a factory in Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
Workers at a factory in Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka