Monday, August 20, 2012

Putting the Tea back into Tea

Any Indian would tell you how important tea-drinking is in people's daily routine. Every household has their own recipe. Tea at our home was always black tea, steeped with water, milk and sugar. A range of spices were added to it in winter - ginger, cloves, pepper, tulsi - for their heating properties. Especially when it was made for someone suffering from a cold, or a fever, the heat from the temperature of the tea would often be surpassed by the heat from the spices. I remember gasping over countless cups where the sting and burn of the spices (ginger and pepper, especially) would last for several minutes afterwards.
Company tea, or party tea, always had a little more milk and a little more sugar, and cardamom. All in an attempt to make it 'richer' and more worthy of being served to guests. Then, of course, there were alterations specific to certain guests. A particular aunt liked her tea with very little milk, so when she was visiting, the milk to water ratio was altered. But try as she might, mom couldn't manage to stop at the tiny amount of milk my aunt liked, and the result would be tea that would be unsatisfactory to both of them - too milky for the one and not enough for the other. The same process was reversed when my mother visited her. It was possible, of course, to go the tea bag way, or the tea service way with pots of milk, sugar and brewed tea (or hot water and tea bags) available for assembly right at the table, but fancy as that might be, the flavour was never deemed satisfactory enough to be desired. Everything in the right quantity had to be steeped together for several minutes, till it achieved an undefinable perfect colour and consistency. I don't think I ever managed to learn to make tea just the way my mother liked it. I did accidentally hit upon the 'perfect' cup of tea a few times, but it was pure fluke.

Recently I've been wondering about all the amazing ways to make tea (Cranberry Iced Tea, or Cucumber Ginger Tea, for example) in which people forget to put one very important ingredient - TEA! I mean, what you cook and the way you cook it is entirely a matter of taste, and I respect everyone's right to cook exactly what they want. But for the sake of clarity, if nothing else, shouldn't tea-less teas be called something other than tea? And yes, I'm equally against seviyan kheer without the seviyan, or sarson ka saag without the sarson. Its like going to a restaurant and saying, "I'd like some onion pakoras, but skip the onions." That's not to say that recipe adaptations are at all problematic, but please acknowledge that its an adaptation. If you were inspired by a recipe for Achari Alu and decided to use cauliflower instead of the potatoes, you're not going to still call it Achari Alu, are you? I'm sure there must be some people out there who will think me an insufferable puritan for this, but I'd like to reclaim the word tea for beverages that actually contain tea! And in case you were beginning to wonder if I'm a racist as well as a puritan, not at all, all colours of tea are equally welcome. Black, Green, White, Yellow and any other shades I don't know about, so long as it be tea. That's all I want. Or is that too much to ask for?
So you don't like tea (or you do like and just need a break or a change, whatever), go ahead and make your novelty concoction. Let your creativity run wild as you experiment with flavour and colour and temperature and ingredients and everything else that can be experimented with. The only think I ask of you is if your Ultimate, Tongue-Tingling, Glow-in-the-Dark, Raspberry Flavoured, Lemon Coloured, Fizzy Tea doesn't have tea, please call it something else.