When I traveled through Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India, and Nepal, I spent many hours in tea shops. To order in any of these countries, I needed to know only one word: chai. Few other words are shared in languages as diverse as Turkish, Urdu, Parsi, Punjabi, Kashmiri, Tamil, Hindi, Newari, and Nepali.
On a typical day I easily drank six cups of tea. Once I made some calculations: If I drank six cups a day, in a month I would consume 180 cups of tea. After a year the total would be 2,190 cups. Then, if I considered the five years I lived with Tibetan refugees in India, I had drunk a grand total of 10,950 cups of tea.
In preliminary Tibetan Buddhist practices, devotees are required to repeat 100,000 mantras, perform 100,000 prostrations, complete 100,000 circumambulations, and create 100,000 mandalas of offerings to the universe. A Buddhist diligently counts to 100, 1,000, and 100,000 on a rosary, bead by bead. Ten thousand cups of tea signifies greatness. If I said a quiet prayer at each sip or thought compassionate thoughts for the benefit of all living beings, I might reap a mountain of good karma.
No two cups of tea are alike. Tibetan tea is not sweet but salty flavored. Packed into square bricks or roundish balls, it is a dark tea, closer to an oolong blend rather than a fine leaf. In addition to the salt, butter is also added. Tibetans favor butter from the female yak, a large long-haired and horned mountainous ungulate that thrives in the high Himalayan altitudes. Tibetans don’t use fresh yak butter; they prefer it rancid.
To make Tibetan tea, break off a lump of the tea from the dried tea brick and boil it with milk and salt in a large pot. Then pour the tea, milk, and salt mixture along with a couple of scoops of the rancid butter (which at best has a blue cheese flavor) into a large churn. Tibetan tea churns are hand-carved wooden vessels with silver or copper trim. Churn the tea as you would butter in a butter churn: slosh the plunger up and down. Hear the woosh and splash of the brew. When it is poured into cups, frothy bubbles rise to the surface.
Wide-rimmed Tibetan handleless cups double as bowls. Traveling Tibetans pack their wooden bowls in the large pouch of their chubas, or jumperlike dress. The bowls of the Tibetan lamas are lined with sterling silver. Ornate silver lids keep the tea warm through the long monastic prayer sessions that precede the tea drinking.
1 tablespoon loose tea leaves (preferably a smoky black tea)
1/4 cup half-and-half cream
1 tablespoon butter
Boil tea in 4 cups of water for about 10 minutes. Remove from fire. With a sieve, remove tea leaves from liquid. Now add milk, butter, and salt to taste. (Tibetans like it very salty!) This will cool the tea, so return briefly to the fire and reheat. Do not boil. For a frothy tea, pour back and forth between two containers two or three times.
Indian tea makers, or chai wallahs, always add milk to tea. In the desert region of Sind, located between India and Pakistan, they add crushed ginger root. The Kashmiris boil their chai with pulverized cardamom seeds or cinnamon.
Villagers in every Indian region gather at the local tea shops to talk over the day’s business or gossip. Many of the shops display posters from Hindu, Sikh, or Muslim mythology: a plump baby Krishna licks cream off his pudgy fist after he tips over the crockery bowl; an older Krishna cavorts with bare-breasted gopis in the forest; Shiva, with his cobra armbands and leopard-skin loincloth, dances or meditates; a formal Sikh Guru Nanak stands at attention, dressed in warrior garb. A popular portrait of a long-haired Jesus Christ displays a gaping hole in his chest and inside, a bleeding heart. One poster features John F. Kennedy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Jawaharlal Nehru smiling side by side. Many shopkeepers proudly display tin boom boxes, which incessantly blare loud and strident Hindi film music.
The tea makers in the Indian bazaars boil the water, milk, and tea in a large pan or kettle. Dust tea, the broken powdery residue that remains after the long leaves have been siphoned off, is popular because it is cheaper than the long-leaf fine Assam or Darjeeling blends. A tea maker might add sugar to the boiling mixture or add a spoonful to each cup for the patron to stir in.
In Kashmir, tea makers serve tea in white cups and saucers. Rather than sipping the tea from cups, the Kashmiris prefer to pour it into the flat saucer, blow on it to cool it down, then slurp it up.
There are two types of tea served in Indian train stations. In first-class waiting rooms and in the train coaches, bearers serve tea in a British manner: heavy white crockery teapots, institutional thick white cups and saucers, stainless steel sugar bowls, and pitchers of heated milk. The bearers wear starched turbans made from yards of sheer cotton cloth wound around the head a dozen times or more. The end piece of the cloth sticks out in a starched flare like a feather or whisk. They balance the tea service on a tray perched over one shoulder and usually go barefoot.
The other variety of train station tea is sold on the platforms by vendors prepared for business when a train rolls in for a quick stop. Their guttural chants of “chaai . . . chaai . . .” are music to the ears of tired travelers. Platform vendors serve premade tea—already boiled with milk and sugar and kept warm in large stainless steel or brass samovars. Sometimes the tea is poured into thick white cups and saucers that young boys pass through the open windows to customers. Most cups are made from coarse clay thrown on a potter’s wheel. Tea served in clay cups acquires a gritty taste, as if the earth itself or even the dirt from the alleys is meant to be part of the brew. But since the cup is nothing more than reshaped earth produced for a fraction of a cent, it is discarded after use. Earth returned to the earth is not considered litter. After the tea is consumed, passengers toss the cups onto the platform, where a boy sweeps the shards onto the tracks after the train leaves the station.
Now, when I visit a coffee shop in Seattle or Berkeley, I order a packet of Darjeeling. The name attracts me, maybe because Darjeeling names a specific city (one in which I lived for two monsoons) instead of naming a region or district, such as Ceylon or Assam, or a generic type, such as English or Irish breakfast tea.
I made tea in Darjeeling by scooping a pitcher of fresh monsoon rainwater from the giant wooden barrel that caught the runoff from my roof; American tap water is not as sweet. Now every time I drink Darjeeling I’m transported to that Himalayan hill station. I see clouds drift up from the plains to the 6,000-foot ridge where I lived. I walk again in the tea market and pick out a handful of leaves from a burlap bag. I breathe on the leaves to warm them so they will release their scent, then cup my palms together to inhale the aroma. I inspect the length of the leaves, bargain over the price per pound.
I walk through the tea estates that surround the town; I wave to the women who carry huge baskets of tea leaves on a strap over their foreheads as they move between rows, gently harvesting the mature leaves. In my room I brew a pot each morning and afternoon during the gray monsoon. I warm my hands over the coals as the tea steeps and the thick milk from the water buffalo rolls to a boil—milk that adds its own musky flavor.
Twenty years have passed since I drank my first 10,000 cups of tea. Each cup still has the potential to highlight the moment, to enlighten the day. Maybe I’ve reached 40,000 or even 50,000 cups of tea by now. A cup of hot tea is a pleasure beyond compare. Perhaps that is why conscientious Tibetans first poke a finger into a cup of tea, then flick the droplets into the air to offer a symbolic taste to the invisible deities and buddhas who inhabit air and sky, so they, too, can share in the pleasure.
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