Sunday, March 19, 2006

Tea-totaller

Don't you just love the flavour of fine Darjeeling? That lilting, fragile taste, that exquisite fragrance. Like sipping sunlight. A flavour that demands the compliment of delicate old china, the luxury of long, tranquil afternoons spent dreaming in your chair, the accompaniment of some witty but light-weight conversation.

One of the things I hate about my office is the tea. I still remember the first day I landed up, all bright-eyed and eager (those of you who know me: I know this is hard to imagine, but try. No? Try again. You there at the back. Yes, you. Shut your eyes and try goddammit!), firmly resolved on drinking less coffee, staring at the dozens of different flavours of tea that I had seen arranged in the pantry. Raspberry Royale, I read. And Vanilla Caramel. And Lemon Lift. And Cinammon Apple. And Orange Spice. And Mint Medley. You're kidding me, right? Whatever happened to normal tea - to good old Assam and reliable Nilgiri? If you hate the taste of tea so much that you have to drown it out with peppermint or caramel why the hell do you drink it at all? Memories of being made to drink Rasna as a kid came back to me. I searched around till I found the last remaining tea bag of Earl Grey (apparently overlooked since the times of Ben Franklin) and stumbled out of the pantry a broken man.

Since then, of course, I always carry a couple of tea bags of Darjeeling with me. The way other people carry condoms. After all, you never know when you may need one [1].

My hands down worst tea experience, though, belongs to an earlier US trip. I was visiting a friend at OSU and got dragged out for a dinner she'd been invited to. Our host that evening was a young christian missionary [2] who'd spent the previous summer working in a school / orphanage somewhere in Tamil Nadu and returned with that precise mix of enthusiasm and cluelessness about India that makes you appreciate the unintended benefits of travel advisories. As she rambled on about temples and elephants and devaa-da-sis (who, according to her, were EXACTLY like nuns. No comment), one tried, out of mere politeness, to pay as little attention as possible, but when she mentioned bringing back large quantities of what she redundantly called Nil-gee-ree Chai Tea my ears pricked up. Did she still have some of it left? I wanted to know, blatant desperation in my voice. Of course, she said, why didn't I think of that earlier (yes, why didn't you?), I'll make some now, shall I?

So enthusiastic was she about this idea, that my offers to help / make it myself were summarily brushed aside (for once they were entirely in earnest, btw - the control freak in me wanted to make sure she didn't screw this up) - she had her own special way of making it - with cardamom (wow! was this woman single?) - it was no trouble; she'd been saving it for precisely this sort of thing, hoping that someone would come along who would know and love tea enough to appreciate it. She vanished into the kitchen. I sat back and savoured both the the gentle irony of having flown half way across the world to drink Niligiri chai in Columbus, Ohio and the eventual aroma of the tea itself, wafting through the room.

When the tea finally arrived though, it consisted of a thick dark liquid at the bottom of a small cup, into which our host poured liberal doses of milk. I was puzzled. But where's the tea, I wanted to ask. Then realised that this was it. What had she done to it? It took me two sips of the vile, bitter tasting liquid in my cup to figure it out. (Warning: If you are a tea-lover or generally sensitive to violence against beverages, stop reading now). She had taken the perfectly good Nilgiri tea she had (it was the kind that comes in packets too, none of this random tea bag shit), ground the leaves in a coffee grinder (along with the cardamom), then put the resulting powder into her espresso machine!! AARGGHHHH!!!! Only the presence of her 6'4'' football jock boyfriend kept me from feeding her, very slowly, into the garbage disposal. As it is, I simply sat there, entirely dumbstruck, mechanically assuring her that no, I had never, ever tasted tea quite like this before. Really. I wasn't just saying that.

As for the tears in my eyes, she probably imagined they were from homesickness.

Notes

[1] And please, no 'dip, dip, dip' jokes. As it is I have this very disturbing vision of a condom ad that involves the lines "Wah, Ustad! Wah!" "Arre huzoor, wah Taj boliye".

[2] a. Well technically, a young christian missionary and her flatmate, who informed me very seriously, when asked, that she was looking to pursue a career in hair-styling, because cutting hair was what stimulated and excited her. This statement was met with an ambivalent 'ah', followed by a long, long pause.

[2] b. Note to self: Never, ever make jokes about the missionary position to an actual honest-to-god missionary. Also, avoid the phrase honest-to-god anything. Or jokes about God in general. ESPECIALLY that one about the monkey, the python and the flying nun.


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11 comments:

Anonymous said...

hi falstaff,

i follow ur blog whenever i can manage to.(time,monetary constraints and parental pressure being few of the prime reasons that keep me away from exploring the net)anyways, that's besides the point...

dunno how huge is ur fan following, but i admire ur convincing writing style and thought process,your sound knowledge, though i do not necessarily agree on all of your views...but your posts sometimes make for an interesting read and some may be passed off as thought provoking ones too...

i m a student(forced by my folks to pursue computer engineering, as a career(would rather be an architect or an arts student:( ) living with my parents, with limited resources...

i am intrigued by philosophy, psychology and literature.
it seems from your blog that u have vast expanse of knowledge of literary arts and wisdom about 'life' in general...
i'm an amateur to literature and i hope u may help me out in choosing engaging and immersing reading/poetry-material.
can u please suggest some good literary stuff i can indulge in?(only if it won't eat up your precious time)

i dunno why i'm asking u for this favour, but i'm hopeful that u wont refuse to help...
u can reply(if u really care to) or drop in a mail at
insouciant_bohemian@hotmail.com

take care and have a nice day:)

Anonymous said...

well..well..quite humorous dude..kind of a satirical humour i must say..i am sure with the whole so called globalization thing in the air it wouldnt be long that you would get the good old 'darjeeling tea' in your neighbourhood. hope you have better experiences till then.
take care bless u...

Babitha said...

Thought I'd actually comment on your blog finally. And it needed something like screwing up tea to get me to! God, I know what you mean. What you described sounded god-awful, I even hate the Mumbai variety where they brew, rather boil the tea along with the milk and water forever and break down all the tannins (or whatever it is)! Horrendous.

Brought back a lot of fond memories of the Tea Centre at Churchgate too.

Falstaff said...

insouciant bohemian: Very flattered, etc. but I'm not sure I'm the right person to be handing out advice on 'good literary stuff to indulge in'. I have this vision of myself as a sort of personal lit trainer, shouting at hapless yuppies to drop and give me five more haikus. As for my incredible 'wisdom' - have you heard the Joni Mitchell song? 'It's life's illusions I recall / I really don't know life at all'

Still, if you must have advice, I'd suggest you take a closer look at a post I'd put up a while back in response to a book tag, as well as the comments section and posts on the same topic by those who commented on that post. That should keep you going for, oh, a couple of years.

Or, if that's too vague, here's the one specific piece of advice I'm willing to swear by: Read Jane Austen.

anonymous: Thanks. To be fair, you can get Darjeeling tea in pretty much any large grocery store, it's just that my office doesn't believe in stocking the stuff.

Babitha: ah, finally! welcome. Yes, the tea centre's awesome isn't it? (though the last time I went there it had become too noisy and wannabe - I like to remember it in all its gubernatorial elegance, with the sound of the piano tinkling away in the background). What I love about them is the way they always over-deliver on the tea - so that if you ask for a two-cup pot you'll easily get four, and if you ask for a six-cup pot you'll get about 10. It's such a wonderful experience to order a two-cup pot while you're there by yourself and taste the tea slowly darkening with every cup.

Cherie! said...

Have always found you to be a very entertaining and complete writer.

DoZ said...

Damn! I've had a draft abt Darjeeling chai sitting on my computer for months, and you had to go write abt it... But it's good to know that your taste for coffee hasn't spoiled your appreciation for the delicate flavor of Darjeeling tea.

I used to consider ginger & cardamom as abominations when I was in India. I think I can even forgive those compared to the fruit juices that pass for chai in the US... Berry flavored decaffinated tea! Why don't they just warm up their Tropicana instead?

Neela said...

darjeeling is nice. but lapsang souchong is better.

And Chai Tea Latte has to be worse than any peppermint monstrosity. Speaking of peppermint monstrosities, I think there's actually a "Save the PhDs" drive that has people donate their supplies of camomile, mint, lemon-apple and ginger-honey teas to starving PhDs. Our department too is incredibly well-stocked with all these-vilenesses-masquerading-as-tea but no halfway decent black tea. No ruby. No Girnar. No Society. No Tiger. Nothing.

n!

Megha said...

Delicious post! But while I pick myself off the floor after the 'arre huzoor, wah Taj boliye' condom ad, I cannot help but remark - You just admitted to remembering a TV ad from the late 80s? To watching TV in the 80s? You?

*walks away shaking head and muttering ghor kalyug, I tell you ..*

Falstaff said...

Cherie: thanks.

DoZ: Ah, well. Know what you mean about cardamom and ginger - I actually rather like the taste, but my general point is that you add stuff like that to mediocre tea, to make it taste more interesting. Not to good Darjeeling. Totally agree about the Tropicana as tea thing, of course, even the colour of these things is so hideous - it reminds me of days spent in my chemistry lab at school - I always feel like i should put on my lab coat before i drink the stuff.

Neela: Can't agree with you about lapsang, but yes, Chai Tea Latte is definitely a purely masochistic indulgence. Pity about your department (here I was thinking of sneaking over to grab decent tea if you had some) - couldn't you get them to stock some of that stuff and pretend it was some sort of long-term CB experiment?

Megha: hello, this was an ad that featured Zakir Hussain, no less. Now if I'd gone the other way and talked about the "if you want it stronger, dip a little longer" condom ad, then you would have true reason to be disappointed.

Also, well, if there's one thing I picked up from all these Akbar-Birbal type stories it's the importance of staying in touch with the masses, usually by sneaking about in the middle of the night 'disguised' as a peasant who just happened to have an entourage of thirty servants in tow. Not to mention that you were the only peasant in a fifty mile radius who'd taken a bath in the last two years.

Sony Pony said...

Our chai tea latte comes in a can with indian raja-and-rani-artwork on the side, apparently sipping chai latte...bilkool horrid, nah?

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