The world in a teacup: brews that hit the spot
The familiar slurp and steam usher in the evening at every Indian household, with the whiff of ginger and cardamom rising in ode to the alchemy of grandma’s love! The marriage of the cup and the saucer is all about the meeting of souls, tea being the elixir flowing between smiling lips in cultures across the world.
Although India’s culinary diversity has divided the north and the south between ‘chai’ and ‘kaapi’ (coffee), tea remains the universal catalyst for affection and hospitality, transcending racial, linguist and geographical boundaries the world over, and summing up the essence of every nation — in a cup.
Through a rendezvous with a few diverse tea cultures, I bring home their simple recipes that not only charm the palate, but unveil a wholesome cultural experience.
Not to be mistaken for the Mumbai or Hyderabadi ‘Irani Chai’, tea is pivotal to Iran’s ancient culinary legacy. Usually black tea with cardamom, sometimes cinnamon or rose petals (sans milk), the legendary Persian ‘mehmaan navaazi’ is incomplete without chai and mouth-melting delicacies.
At traditional ‘Ghahveh Khaaneh’, literally ‘coffee houses’, people get together and engage in a perfect cultural experience throughout Iran. Despite the name, they serve tea, not coffee, with mouth-melting sweets or special omelettes served in zinc pans.
“The exquisite traditional interiors of the Ghaveh Khaaneh and live classical music add to the charm of sitting on intricately embroidered carpets and sipping chai in brimming cups over gossip, giggles and gaiety!” reminisces India’s famed Persian chef Afshin Kohinoor. Iraq too shares similar, often simpler preparations.
• Boil water.
• Add ground or whole cardamom pods with or without the skin to the boiling water or add in the beginning to boil with the water.
• Steep for a few seconds, add black tea and sugar, rose syrup or honey. Make sure not to over-brew, so the balance of ingredients is maintained.
Tibetan tea preparation rituals are quite like their ancient meditation practices, which allow one to gain an experience of seeming wholeness, so does their. Unusual and wholesome, the Tibetan ‘Po Cha’ tea has an intriguing culture associated with it, quite like the land and its people.
Offered to guests and also savoured by monks, the ancient ‘Yak butter Tea’, which dates back to the 7th century Tang Dynasty, is served in tiny, bright and colourfully designed cups, and is prepared as soulfully as it is drunk. It is believed that the cup is refilled by the host after the guests’ every sip, so they never drain their cups.
Tibetan butter tea is often consumed with Tsampa , a staple flour preparation of the region. For those habituated to sweetened teas, the salty Po Cha maybe a culture shock, but the deeply comforting harmony of ingredients ultimately leaves your lips smiling! Many would even find it more of a soup than a tea mix! To prepare Tibetan tea outside the region, one needs:
• Plain black tea
• Butter (salted or unsalted)
Method: Boil the water, add tea (bags or grounds), let it steep for some minutes, add some salt, take out the tea bags or strain grounds, add milk and turn off the flame, pour tea mixture and some butter into a large container, cover it and churn it well. Tibetan tea is usually served very hot.
A LA LEBANON
With its Biblical history, Lebanon is a cultural melting pot, its cuisine bearing several fascinating influences.
From the stunning seascapes of vibrant Beirut and quaint
Tyre to the scenic interiors, a unique tea culture endears throughout Lebanon. Known to be fun-loving and friendly, the Lebanese love to cheer their famous health-giving ‘Shaayi bil Qirfah wa’l Yansoon’ (anise and cinnamon tea) symbolising their friendly spirit.
Although ‘Shaayi’ is the common word for both teas and infusions, this infusion is often consumed without any tea, for medicinal purposes.
• Boil water with aniseed and cinnamon (powdered or sticks) in desired quantity.
• Add black tea (optional) and get a balanced brew.
• Strain the liquor and serve with or without added sugar.
YOURS FROM YEMEN
An ancient land with eons of history, Yemen serves magic on your platter. Every brick and wall shouts heritage and rugged Bedouins welcome you into their rustic world, be it the cobbled and colourful traditional markets of Sana’a or the mountainous or sandy hinterland expanses.
Known to have age-old ties with India, one finds similarities between Yemen’s famed ‘Shaayi Adani’ (tea of Aden) and the ‘kadak masala desi chai’, both of which play a wholesome symphony of spices on the palate. Apart from being incredibly refreshing and rejuvenating, it often seems
to be a meal in itself, especially when accompanied by biscuits, dates or sweets. It is also one of the few Shaayi (tea in Arabic) in the Arab World served ‘bil haleeb’ or with milk.
• Add cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and chopped ginger to water (required quantity).
• Add milk.
• Bring to boil.
• Add black tea, sugar.
Chai(or ‘Çay’) can be called the unofficial Turkish word for ‘breath’! An integral part of life and love, the bright red magic pours into pear-shaped cups every time a guest arrives, a friend pecks a cheek or a group of hardy septuagenarians decide to spend an afternoon by the blue Bosphorous, watching ships from around the globe sail past — like every sip, past the palate!
Like it is with their Arab and Persian neighbours, tea is central to Turkish cuisine. Mainly cultivated in the Rize region of the Back Sea coast, known for its fertile soil and mild climate, black tea (Siyah çay) takes centre stage, although green tea (yesil çay), herbal and fruity infusions find place with locals and tourists alike. Sage tea is also popular in the country’s Mediterrean coastal regions.
Sweet or salted biscuits caled ‘Kurabiye’ or irresistible Baklava accompany the tea. Istanbul-based young Turkish gourmand couple Handan and Hikmet passionately explain the preparation.
• Turkish tea is generally prepared using two kettles called ‘çaydanlik’, placed one on top of the other.
• Water is boiled in the lower kettle, some added in the upper one to steep a
sufficient quantity of tea leaves.
• There is a choice between three types of brews: ‘koyu’ (dark), ‘tavsan kanı’ (deep brownish red) or ‘açık’ (weak).
• Sugar cubes are preferred to sweeten the tea.
TEA OF THE RISING SUN
‘Culinary meditation’ best defines Japan’s ancient legacy of nourishing cuisine, a classic rendezvous of gastronomy and spirituality. With tranquility central to many Japanese ceremonies, making tea is considered one of the most sought-after experiences.
Tea being indispensible to Japanese cuisine, preparing it is a sacred, relaxing and elaborate cultural ritual (‘Chanoyu’), which rejuvenates the mind, body and spirit. The Japanese breathe life into ‘Matcha’ or powdered green tea, Zen being a great influence on the country’s tea culture. There are also ceremonies using ‘Sencha’ green tea, known as ‘Senchado’ or ‘the way of the Sencha’.
While informal ‘Chakai’ tea gatherings and the more formal ‘Chaji’, both visually aesthetic, bring people together, both are followed by light or heavy meals respectively and can last until hours. Although rooms with special ‘tatami’ flooring are preferred, tea ceremonies can be conducted in any space where relevant implements of preparation can be used, and guests can be seated.
‘Wa, Kei, Sei, Jaku’ (harmony, respect, purity and tranquility) are the pillars of Japan’s tea philosophy
along with ‘Wabi’ (appreciating simple and natural beauty) and ‘Kokoroire’ (devotion). Hanging scrolls, flower arrangements, special types of clothing are among other fascinating requirements to complete a traditional Japanese tea ceremony.
The legendary symbol of North Africa’s Maghreb region (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya) is its tantalising mint tea, called ‘Shaayi bi-na’na’ in Arabic, ‘the a la menthe’ in French. The Mediterranean being the haven of the happy-go-lucky, sharing mint tea in small pear-shaped cups called ‘Ka’as Shaayi’ is the Maghrebi tradition of spreading cheer among family, friends, neighbours and guests. Be it village elders immersed in card games under shady trees, sophisticated city folk serving sweetened versions or hardy Berbers and Tuaregs and their robust Saharan strong-brews, ‘Taay’ as it is also called, is simplistic and soul-nourishing.
The French-Maghrebi proverb sums-up the experience, “Le premier verre est aussi doux que la vie, le deuxiem est aussi fort que l’amour, le troisime est aussi amer que la mort” (The first cup is as sweet as life, the second as strong as love, the third as bitter as death)!
While Chinese ‘Gunpowder’ green tea is preferred in the three former French colonies, Libya boasts of ‘Shaayi Ahmar’ or ‘Red tea’ with mint, nothing but black tea that turns red when lightly brewed! “The Moroccans prefer lighter brews, more sugar and mint, while we savour pine nuts swimming on the surface. Sweets and cookies are fine accompaniments,” offers the French-Tunisian scholar Sayyid Adel with a smile, and a simple method of preparation.
- Boil water of desired quantity in a teapot.
- Add green tea and steep for a few minutes.
- Add mint to the teapot (if served immediately).
- Or strain the concentrate and serve in cups either containing fresh mint leaves or add them later with sugar or honey (if served at leisure,as it is not advisable to retain the mint in the liquor for long).
KASHMIR IN A CUP
As near-to mystical as its traditional music is Kashmir’s culinary heritage, influenced by regions like the Arab World, Central Asia and Persia. The scenic region boasts of two exhilarating, popular tea varieties, ‘Kahwah’ and ‘Noon Chai’, called ‘pink tea’, often served on special occasions.
Not to be mistaken for the Middle-Eastern ‘Qahwah’, which is lightly brewed coffee with cardamom, Kashmiri Kahwah or ‘Kehwah’ is a complex and enriching preparation. Some even believe that the word comprises of ‘Kah’ (eleven in Kashmiri), since it is prepared with eleven different ingredients, and ‘wah’, the expression of appreciation of the resultant infusion, which is complex and eclectic.
Kahwah: Ingredients — Cardamom, cinnamon, saffron, kahwah tea leaves, sugar, saffron.
Method: Grind cardamom and cinnamon to powder, grind almonds and keep aside. Add all ingredients except almond powder to water and bring to boil until it turns golden. Strain and sprinkle almond on top of each cup and serve. Kahwah premix powders are also available.
Noon Chai: Ingredients — Water, tea leaves, baking soda, star anise, cardamom, cinnamon, finely chopped pistachio, sugar.
Method: Boil water in a non-stick pan, add all ingredients except pistachio and milk, and bring to boil. De-seed the cardamom pods before adding. Add milk, mix well and bring to boil, discard tea leaves and spices, add sugar and mix well, let sugar melt. Strain tea in a kettle, pour into cups and garnish with finely chopped pistachios.