lalita larking

An obsession with cryptic crosswords. Everything else falls in place.

Location: Kolkata, India

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Until the water begins to laugh

I am not much of a coffee drinker; for all that I am a South Indian. I like the occasional cup of filter coffee certainly, but I don't make a religion out of it. The recent profusion of coffee bars leaves me unmoved. The varieties of coffee they offer impress me not. I am a tea drinker, you see.

When we were growing up, we used to drink a glass of milk first thing in the morning. It wasn't until I started college that I discovered hot stimulants like tea and coffee. Oh, both coffee and tea were made and consumed at home, but that was for grown-ups.

It was in the Queen Mary's College canteen that I had my first cup of tea. And coffee. Vile though they both were, I preferred the vileness of tea to coffee. Later, in Presidency College, we used to have long chat sessions in the canteen over endless cups of tea.

I started having a cup of tea in the afternoon at home too, around that time. But it was made by the maid, and it was always Brooke Bond Red Label, and it was always cooked. Yes, I said cooked. It was made by boiling the water in a saucepan, spooning the leaves into the water, bringing the water to a rolling boil again and straining the decoction. Milk and sugar were added to this and it was ready to be served.

I know. It sounds ghastly.

I got married, and our khansamah served tea, and I suppose he made it the same way. It wasn't until he quit and I entered the kitchen that I had a reason to make tea myself. It was by chance that I learnt to brew tea. I'd just spooned the tea leaves into the saucepan when the phone rang, so I turned off the heat, covered the saucepan and went to answer the phone. Voila!

Then a friend gave a gift. Some Darjeeling tea, a brand called Runglee Rungliot. It came in a canister, and had detailed instructions about how to brew a good cup of tea. I was an instant convert. I became a fanatic about brewing tea properly.

I learnt the mantra, 'One for each cup and one for the pot', I learnt the finer points of warming the pot so that the boiling water doesn't cool too fast once it is poured, and I learnt the trick of adding milk to the cup before pouring the tea.

Once that lot of tea was used up, I found I couldn't go back to Red Label. It was like Cinderella dancing with Prince Charming and settling for the chimneysweep. I explored the teas on offer. Lipton Green Label was a decent tea, I found.

A cousin gave me an infuser. This is a perforated steel egg, with a little chain attached to the top. That chain makes it ideal for brewing individual cups of tea. It also does away with the need to strain the tea as the leaves are contained in the infuser, and it can be simply lifted out.

I don't drink as much tea as I used to, but I still brew it properly. Each cup of tea I brew is made the same way. Boiling the water, warming my tea mug, measuring out a heaped spoonful of tea into the infuser (one for the cup, one for the pot, remember?), and placing it in the mug, pouring the boiling water, covering the mug and steeping for four minutes - it never varies. My infusers lost their chains, but I still use them, as they hold the mess of tea leaves together and are still ideal making single cups of tea.

Nowadays I drink Castleton, which is a very good Darjeeling tea. I tried Earl Grey, but I didn't like it. And don't talk to me about teabags, please.

I laughed in delight as I read Douglas Adams teaching Americans how to make a decent cuppa. It is exactly how I brew it.

Among my cookery books is a gem, Food for the Emperor, a book of recipes from Imperial China and a dictionary of Chinese Cuisine. Compiled by John D. Keys, it is a collection of marvellous recipes and anecdotes, excerpts from Chinese literature and histories.

Here is an excerpt I love:

"I am sending you some leaves of tea. They come from the tree belonging to the monastery which lies upon the mountain Ou I.

"Take a blue urn of Ni Hung. Fill it with water which has been melted from snow gathered, at sunrise, upon the western slope of the mountain Sou Chan; place this urn over a fire of maple twigs that have been collected from among very old moss, and leave it there just until the water begins to laugh. Then pour it in a cup of Huen Tcha in which you have placed some leaves of this tea, cover the cup with a bit of white silk woven at Houa Chan, and wait until your room is filled with a perfume like that of a garden at Fouen Lo.

"Lift the cup to your lips, then close your eyes. You will be in Paradise."

Ouang Tsi (723-737), to a friend



Blogger Priya said...

Even as a non-tea drinker, I could smell Paradise!

5:29 pm  
Anonymous Ash said...

Missus Em making a mistake! (723-737) Was that a typo?

Nice. I like Earl Grey, myself.

5:32 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Priya- You don't drink tea? Philistine. :-)

Ash- Nope, I typed faithfully. I did wonder, though.
Earl Grey? Teabags, I suppose. Faugh!

6:35 pm  
Blogger Rimi said...

I converted early from coffee to tea. And you shall have to brew me a cup the next time I come over :D

6:37 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Rimi- Done, Princess. Just come over. :-)

6:40 pm  
Blogger abhorigine said...

You, a tea drinker? I feel betrayed. What price your southern upbringing? And you have surely heard of what happened the Hon. Galahad Threepwood's friend when he took to tea. You come to our humble abode in Chennai, and I promise to convert you forever to coffee.

10:40 pm  
Blogger Anand said...

I don't think my preference for tea would necessarily mean that I disconnect coffee, or for that matter any fine drink from my life! BTW Lalita, what do you have with your tea? 'Butter biscuits' go with the 'cooked tea'-- staple of hundreds of college canteens. I personally have not found any good biscuits here. Also I find dipping soggy Britannia in tea-payasam disgusting!

12:11 am  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Ram- We are planning nostalgia tourism sometime soon to Madras; I will certainly let you try to convert me then.

Anand- I have my tea pure and simple. I don't sully it by adding sugar, and most days I don't add milk either. I certainly don't dip Britannia or any other biscuits in my tea. But yes, being a tea drinker doesn't disconnect me from appreciating a good cup of coffee, or any other beverage.

8:02 am  
Anonymous Rajesh said...

Leaf teas are messy and they are weak I thought. But that quote made me want to try making tea the right way.

5:12 pm  
Blogger abhorigine said...

Kidding apart, I love good tea too, not the milky, sweet chai we get at most places, but the kind you mentioned. The cuppa I appreciated most in my life was a smashing lemon tea I was 'administered' courtesy a German doctor who found me sprawled near the men's room of a Hong Kong restaurant back in 1978. Nauseous with dehydration, I had and collapsed there, when he found me. He thought I was having a heart attack! (I, being the wretched, suspicious cynic that I was, thought he was a gay, making an advance). He really took great care of me, a complete stranger, refusing to accept a fee for his troubles. And the tea was out of this world!

7:17 pm  
Anonymous Hehhh said...

Storm in a teacup. The cup that cheers is one administered in congenial company; 'cept in the mornings, savoured alone .

Try mixing a tot of rum in it, bound to make it better.

Ammanukku Dibali greetings.

7:33 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Rajesh- Child, do give it a try, you will be converted, I promise you.

Ram- What a story! Do write about it, please. Sounds wonderful, the man does, your cynical suspicion notwithstanding. And lemon tea requires an entire different post, I must say. :-)

Hehhh- Ah, Amman rains benevolence at devotee wonly, Happy Diwali to you, too.

Eeek! Spoil both rum and tea by mixing the two? What blasphemy is this? Enna kodumai idhu?

10:07 pm  
Anonymous Prophet of Doom said...


3:33 am  
Anonymous Hehhh said...

Lemon tea vairy pretty
and the lemon flour is sweet

errr... seemta have got the lyrics a tad awry, if you get the ref.

7:52 am  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Ram- Qucik, you need a cuppa to wake you up! :D

Hehhh- Good grief, the younger generation knows the song? The mind boggles, it does.

8:34 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lalita, you sound like George Orwell (

I have a Malayalee friend whose wife hails from Punjab. When they got married twenty five years back, he would have tea made the Kerala way - strong, viscous and 'cooked' as you put it, and served in a glass tumbler. She had such a refined taste and would have her Earl Greys poured out of expensive ceramic teapots. Over a period of time, each had a subtle but definite influence on the other and today, they have swapped roles and she insists on the thick tea and he the light darjeelings.Ha, married life!

5:32 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Raj- Ha, married life says it all.

I adjusted to slovenly habits, of clothes strewn as they were discarded, I adjusted to sharing a kitchen with a meat-eater while keeping my cooking utensils pure, I adjusted to change of languages, thinking in English, and I adjusted to being Missus Em. I refuse to adjust my tea preferences. No way. No how.

8:40 pm  
Anonymous Hehhh said...

"I've been to Paradise, but I've never been to me".

That's what I was going to type when the faux mondegreen struck.

See, rum DOES make everything better :)

10:08 am  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Hehhh-I haven't heard this song though. I checked the lyric, and I like it. Thanks. But I liked the mondegreen, too.
Rum to the rescue! :-)

12:07 pm  
Blogger The Marauder's Map said...

What a lovely post. I'm a confirmed tea addict, in spite of having an even viler variation of 'cooked tea' almost everyday. In my version, you add the milk, sugar AND the tea leaves to water and boil the whole thing. I'm sure the purist in you is shuddering. But I like my brewed teas too, when I can be bothered with all that paraphernalia.

8:20 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

TMM- Heh. I know what you mean. I consume teas of the ghastly variety you describe if they are offered, at my salon or when I am visiting. Yeah, the purist in me shudders, but tea is tea and Assam, Chinese, green, Lankan or Nilgiri, tea is always welcome. Excepting always the travesty that is served on trains. On Indian Railways tea and coffee are interchangeable and taste the same.

9:53 pm  

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