All the pretty flavored teas are…what?

I used to love the sheer variety of blends of tea and tisanes. The mixes of flowers, fruit pieces, even innovative nuts, spices, cacao beans, etc. was so impressive that I wished I could just buy flavored teas to use as decorative potpourri throughout my house.

But here’s the thing: I could never taste what was special about flavored black teas and white teas, and increasingly I found that flavored green teas tasted artificial. Guess why? It turns out that most flavored teas have, well, food flavors in them. These food flavorings can be artificial (made up of chemicals that mimic the smell and somewhat the taste of certain flavours) or natural flavors (like vanilla, citrus, etc.). But unless the tea manufacturer specifically states that the flavors they’ve added to tea blends are natural, you never know what they’ve put in. So when you think you’re drinking a lovely bit of pineapple and coconut in a pina colada tea, you could in fact be drinking some random unidentified flavoring. And those pineapple and coconut pieces? All just a show. Try it-steep dried pineapple and coconut pieces in hot water and see what it tastes like.

So I thought: huh. All those pretty flower, fruit, nut pieces-all just a show and the real flavor comes from…a chemistry lab? (Which reminds me-I remember creating artificial flavors in high school chemistry lab-if that doesn’t put you off artificial flavoring, I don’t know what does).

Generally most companies don’t fiddle around with herbal tea blends (but check anyway-if the ingredients list includes ‘flavor’ you know there’s some in there). And some companies either use no flavoring or they use only natural flavors. I’ve also found stevia, sugar (from dried fruit), and other ingredients in blends that I’m not super excited about. If you want to know who does what, maybe google around or ask your tea supplier. Decide for yourself what you are willing to take in your tea-nothing, natural flavor, artificial flavor, sugar/sugar substitutes, or anything as long as it tastes good.

For me, what I’ve found is: if you have really good, fresh tea, it’s got such amazing flavor nuances that  you don’t really need to have gimmicky teas. Developing a flavor palate for pure teas, pure herbals and blends of pure teas/herbals is no different than doing so for anything else-be it coffee, chocolate, wine, etc. Once you have great teas, you never go back to the gimmicks.

Here’s a tisane (herbal tea) that I’ve been drinking a lot lately. It’s sweet, soothing, and I think it’d be a really sexy drink to serve guests in the afternoon or at a dinner party:

Cinnamon tisane:

3-4 Cinnamon sticks or about a half a tablespoon of cinnamon pieces (preferably organic, be sure to get the true cinnamon from Ceylon)
Boiling water, approximately one litre.

In a pitcher or teapot, place cinnamon sticks. Pour boiling water over, let steep. You can drink this warm after 10 minutes or as I do, you can let it cool and refrigerate it. If it’s too strong you can add a bit of water or some ice cubes. If it’s too weak for you, add a bit more cinnamon next time. Et voila, you’ve got a wonderfully flavoured, non-caffinated tisane that has nothing out of a chemistry lab in it.

Oh and those blends with flower/fruit/candy pieces lying around in your house? I’m sure they’d make lovely art projects…

A shared cup

I can’t imagine life in India without tea. Get up in the morning (and if you’re a lucky duck), there’s bed tea. Yes, tea literally served in bed, first thing when you wake up. This wasn’t a tradition in my house, but tea was served soon after waking up, at breakfast. Therafter endless batches of tea, rather, chai (strong, milky, sugary black tea), were cooked up. Friends of my father or uncles would drop by and tea would be served, business acquaintances would come, tea would be served, and mostly, about every other hour or so, someone in the house would have a tea craving and lo and behold, it would appear. Then of course there would be the regular tea times with snacks, to tide everyone over till dinner.

What I vividly remember is the way the chai would be drunk. It was always served in cups with deep saucers. You poured the tea from the cup into the saucer, carefully lifted the saucer to your lips, blew, took a sip. If you were peckish you’d dunk a piece of fresh bread or some cumin flavoured biscuits (cookies) from the bakery down the street into the tea remaining in the cup, and savoured the taste of the blissful communion of tea and carbohydrate.

The division of a cup of tea between cup and saucer was beyond practicality. It was an act of symbolism. Done when one was drinking tea alone, the cup and saucer ritual was merely to cool down hot tea fast. Done in the company of friends, it became the ultimate sign of affection. Instead of having a cup of tea each, close friends would share such a cup of tea: one taking a saucerful, the other, half a cup.

This sharing ritual goes well beyond the confines of the home. The ‘cutting-chai’ is a well-known phenomenon: a glass of tea, divided into two, shared among friends. A shot of sweet-strong milkiness on a hot afternoon, a quick conversation, then onward. Beautiful.

Decades later I would come across a fancy new phenomenon called the ‘chai-tea latte’. Globetrotters landing in India would come across the spiced version of chai and recreate it for easy use in cafes. It’s a perfectly fine drink, of course. Since then the chai phenomenon has exploded and you can find all sorts.

But I have found nothing, nothing, that substitutes the pure pleasure of a shared chai, be it in the cup-saucer format or in two small, too-hot, clear glasses. Relegated to homes, tea stalls, restaurants for the common man, never served in fancy locales, it remains the tea drink that is closest to my heart.

Oh, and here’s a revelation: despite the gallons of chai made in my house everyday when I lived in India as a child, I wasn’t allowed a single drop. No sir, it was hot milk and sugar, or hot milk and Bournvita, or some other such concotion of milk with not a hint of tea in it. I more than made up for this when I did my internship in Mumbai after grad school. Going out into the summer midday heat with my field colleagues meant stopping by for a cutting chai, field visits meant endless cups of tea served in steel tumblers in the countless tiny makeshift homes in slums we visited. Coming back to office, we were guaranteed to catch at least one, if not both rounds, of the evening tea, served by the friendly neighbourhood tea-stall owner. Little did I know then, sipping my sweet, sweet chai, that in just a few years to come I would taste some of the rarest teas on the planet, in the places where they were made, with the people who made them. But the traditional chai will always hold a special place in my heart.

Here’s how it’s made:
(Makes 2 cups)

  • Bring a cup of water to boil
  • Put in two teaspoons of black tea (preferably fresh Assam CTC. If you can’t smell the fragrance, your tea is too old. Go get fresh tea.)
  • Lower the heat to medium/medium-high so the tea continues to ‘cook’ at a rolling boil, but not too vigorously
  • After about 4-5 minutes add in a cup of full-fat milk (if you want to be fancy, heat the milk alongside the tea and pour it in once its hot. if you want to be more ‘everyday’ just put it in cold). Once you put the milk in, watch the chai like a hawk. It boils over incredibly quickly.
  • If you’re adding sugar, do so now. I’d say about a teaspoon per cup is fine, more if you like it sweeter.
  • Bring everything to a boil again, lower the heat, bring to boil again (repeat a couple of times).
  • Strain the tea into mugs, cups/saucers, glasses.
  • Enjoy with a friend or savour alone.