Time for Tea

There were various things we had associated with Nagaland before setting foot there, but one thing we certainly hadn’t was tea plantations. It was therefore a surprise to find out that Nagaland is a rapidly developing tea-growing area, and that our host in Shillong village in Northern Nagaland was the manager of the State’s largest tea plantation. A very pleasant surprise, as we both love the look of tea plantations and are hearty tea drinkers. Both in Darjeeling and in Assam we had wanted to stay at a tea estate and delve into the history and practice of tea cultivation a bit further, but not found the time. Now the opportunity was unexpectedly there.

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Tea has been a big theme during this trip. Of course tea consumption is simply huge in Asia. Where in other places in the world the most common thing to offer guests is coffee, in Asia you cannot sit down or meet anyone without being offered tea. Following local fashion, on mainland India we’d thus purchase little paper cups of masala chai at the roadside. In the old British hill stations an elaborate high tea was offered to us complete with sandwiches and scones. In Bhutan a darker variant of Chinese tea was brought out to us in large mugs wherever we stopped, or occasionally a cup of ‘butter’ tea, definitely an acquired taste with its blending in of yak butter and salt. And in the North East the mix of people is reflected in a mix of teas, ranging from the milky plains chai to the darker Chinese teas.

The cultivation of tea in Nagaland is much more recent and modest than cultivation in Darjeeling and Assam. Darjeeling is of course near synonymous with tea, producing one of the world’s most popular teas since the 1840s. Slightly lesser known but in fact the world’s largest tea-growing region, Assam produces a distinctive black tea commonly drunk as breakfast tea. Together with China, it is the only region in the world with native tea plants, differing from each other only in terms of size (this surprising discovery means that, unlike with wine for example, it’s mostly the processing and blending technique that creates the variety).

The family of our host in Shillong started the tea business about 25 years ago. Since then, after various recent studies have revealed that the land is suitable for high quality tea production, the industry has been growing quickly. Our host explained that Nagaland has great potential, with leaves yielding record prices, but that currently Naga growers are dependent on Assam factories for the processing of their leaves. This causes the loss of much of the profit – due to underlying feelings of competition – without doubt reinforced by ethnic frictions – the Assamese factories always find reasons to lower prices. In addition, by the time the tea gets to the factories a lot of it is already spoilt. Simply by selling its leaves, Nagaland’s tea industry cannot sustain itself in the long run, so our host’s family is on a mission to set up Nagaland’s first tea processing factory. As part of the beautiful hike around the estate she took us on, she showed us the site that had already been cleared for the purpose.

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Tea is also grown in Myanmar, and I am resolved to find out more about it after we return. The tea culture there remains my favorite of all. Drinking tea comprises basically Myanmar’s entire street culture, and in comparison, pubs and clubs have remained a minor pursuit. Everywhere you go in the country and from early in the morning until late at night you find men and women sitting on the tea shops’ low stools that line the streets, enjoying tiny cups of (free) Chinese green tea served with a diverse range of (not free) snacks as they read the newspaper or chat with friends. Conveniently, especially for a large volume consumer like myself, there is no need to ask for a refill as huge thermoses are supplied. And tea is not only drunk in Myanmar, it is one of the few countries in the world where it is also eaten. Tea leaf salad – Pickled tea mixed with other ingredients such as crisp fried garlic, peas and peanuts, toasted sesame and sesame oil, dried shrimp, ginger and coconut – is a favorite national dish and no ceremony is complete without it.

Our host in Nagaland was much surprised to learn this, but has promised to try out the tea leaf salad recipe I will be sending her. Who knows what might feature on Naga menus in the future!

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