Thursday, September 1, 2011

Thoughts of Tea

I'm unpacking an old tea set (or what remains of it), salvaged and brought back from my family home, and my thoughts turn simply and naturally to tea. Surprisingly I have been discussing tea for some days now with my family, in different contexts.

With my husband, because our supply of Darjeeling tea (which is the Indian tea that we like best) is running low and we need to replenish our supply. With my mother in law, because she has been looking in vain for a brown English tea pot (or for that matter any well made teapot) and can only find strange designerware in shops. I tell her that these days most people don't have time for teapots and that in recent years we have only had 'mixed tea' in people's houses (the traditional Indian style where tea, milk and sugar are boiled together and served directly in cups) and she feels that it is the end of the 'plantation generation' of tea drinkers.

My family, living far from plantations, greatly enjoyed their cuppas and had all sizes of teapots. I can still remember my relatives instructing the servants as to whether to use the 'chhoti ketli' (small kettle) or 'badi ketli' (big kettle) depending on the number of tea drinkers present. Just yesterday, my father was wondering what to take as a housewarming gift for a friend and I automatically suggested an embroidered tea cosy and tray cloth set. Having thought a little more though, I felt that people no longer use these things and it might be a waste. My father sighed and said that he would rather keep whatever sets he had for his own use. (There is a little history behind this. My maternal grandmother, post-partition, had set up a small enterprise for the wives of factory employees, where she taught them embroidery. Thus our houses have always been filled with embroidered stuff, tea cosy sets being high on the list and always being handed out to friends and relatives). So... things are changing, I reluctantly admit to myself. We are all now going through tea thing troubles.

I am not a compulsive tea drinker but I welcome a cup of light tea in the mornings (and on cold, rainy days, in the evenings as well). However, more than that, I enjoy the ritual of tea - sitting together, pouring it out and watching it steam over delicate china cups, sniffing the aroma and sipping it gradually. I also await the delightful teatime snacks (served when we have company). If we are in the mood for something substantial, it is crusty samosas filled with mashed potatoes and peas (and the occasional raisin) and crisp, slender and sweet jalebis bought from our neighbourhood sweetshop. For a somewhat more elegant tea, it would be delicate sandwiches, perhaps cucumber or chutney (in India, chutney generally implies a delicious, green concoction - a combination of mint and coriander leaves ground together with a hint of green chilly or lemon and salt) and pakoras (sliced vegetables dipped in gram flour and fried) or fish fingers - we need something hot to munch on otherwise we are really not quite content. In Kolkata, we might be offered prawn cutlets (gigantic prawns that are flattened, marinated, crumbed and fried) or luchis and alur dom (poories and tiny potatoes cooked in a mild, thickish sauce) (and on occasion, even both!) along with the mishti (sweet stuff) that Bengali meals are incomplete without.

It's not just the eating and drinking (though that's great fun) but the other aspects too - changing into clean, crisp clothes and visiting people in the evenings, sitting down together and chatting about nothing very essential- taking a few hours off from one's 'prime time schedule' to unwind and spend time with people whose company we enjoy.

Perhaps it's wishful thinking, but I would like to organize some tea parties in the days to come. I gently wash the tea set and it lies in the kitchen, slowly drying, nodding its approval and encouragement.

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