tea stories: Ilam tea

leaf.jpg

This image appeared on the box of Ilam tea that my friend brought me from Nepal. ཨོཾ is a common way of writing “om” as in “om mani padme hum” in Tibetan characters.

Left with the question of how I might bring the experience of Asian tea home to Lethbridge, I did what any Euro-Canadian in love with Asia would do: I fell in with a Bhutanese-Nepalese gyan yoga (“yoga of knowledge”) group and enjoyed satsang with music, day trips, Nepalese food, and most importantly, tea, every Sunday for the better part of two years.

After these two years of harmonium, tablas, yoga, sabji (curry), visiting mahatmas, spontaneous road trips, singing, dancing and mantras, at last I told the group that taking the next step of initiation into the group was further than I intended to go. The truth is: I loved the tea culture.

You’ve probably had chai at your local coffee shop. You may have even wondered why the Hindi word, चाय, or“chai” is so similar to the Mandarin word, 茶 or “cha”. These words mean nothing more than “tea”. The reason you think of Indian tea as containing milk, cloves, cardamom, fruits, milk, and other spices is that every region has a different method of preparation, and the regions of India, Nepal and Tibet have historically chosen to garnish their tea with several additives.

As Kakuzo Okakura writes in his “Book of Tea”:

“By the fourth and fifth centuries Tea became a favorite beverage among the inhabitants of the Yangtse-Kiang valley. It was about this time that modern ideograph Cha was coined, evidently a corruption of the classic Tou. The poets of the southern dynasties have left some fragments of their fervent adoration of the “froth of the liquid jade.”

Then emperors used to bestow some rare preparation of the leaves on their high ministers as a reward for eminent services. Yet the method of drinking tea at this stage was primitive in the extreme. The leaves were steamed, crushed in a mortar, made into a cake, and boiled together with rice, ginger, salt, orange peel, spices, milk, and sometimes with onions! The custom obtains at the present day among the Tibetans and various Mongolian tribes, who make a curious syrup of these ingredients.”

Imagine my surprise when one of my Nepalese friends boiled a special tea, tea from the famous Ilam tea fields of Nepal, with a ton of sugar!

Here’s the story. My friend went to Mt. Everest to climb to base camp 1. He sent me a message over facebook to ask if there was anything I wanted him to bring back. I had no idea, so I asked my Nepalese friend, Robin, what I should request.

His answer was immediate and direct: Bring tea from Ilam. It’s the best.

tea nepal.jpg

I answered my friend in Nepal, “my good friend tells me Ilam tea is the best tea. How about a box of that?” Two weeks later, I receive the tea and I thank my friend profusely. The presentation is beautiful. The box comes with a greeting card adorned with a dried leaf and the Nepalese character for the syllable of “om”. I brought the tea to Robin’s workplace and we did it up.

Robin looks at the tea, and tells me he’ll take care of it. He raves about the stuff, telling me that he hasn’t had it for nine years. He throws the leaves into an electric kettle and boils them with several spoonfuls of sugar. I’m puzzled.

I drink the tea, but I can’t taste any of the flavour. He’s very happy with the result, but I’m left wondering how much of the tea you can taste through the spoonfuls of sugar. We look at the leaves. It seems they’re a blend of green and black, thrown together willy-nilly. The hectic nature of the blend and the pour are immaterial. The fact that I’m hanging out with Robin and another friend of ours makes the tea ceremony well worth the tea spread.

Of course I rush home after and make a few pots without any additives. Honestly, the tea has its own characteristic that makes it special, like any tea. The taste of the tea isn’t too terribly different from a commercial-grade pekoe. Something’s missing from these pots, some ingredient that the tea with Robin was abundant with. The ingredient wasn’t sugar.

Tea actually tastes better with friendship. Hm. I might have discovered something today.

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