Kolkata's love for loose-leaf tea is a longstanding tradition — one the city's cha houses cater to with care

‘Cha khabe to?’

(You will drink tea, right?)

In a Bengali household in Kolkata, this is what you are most likely to hear (second only to a stern, ‘Podhte bosho' — sit down to study). The question is rhetorical, because the answer is always yes, no matter what time of the day it is.

Tea or ‘cha’ is religion in Kolkata and the accompaniment to everything from football feuds to adda, or catching up with friends for gossip/discussion. It is also a city that drinks its tea differently. Many Kolkatans prefer to drink their tea brewed with just a dash of milk added later, or simply as raw liquor tea. They also prefer to buy it fresh from their local ‘tea house.’

Kolkata’s tea houses aren’t fancy ceremonious establishments like their Chinese or Japanese namesakes. Instead, these are ‘Cha-pata’ or loose-leaf tea stores common across Kolkata neighbourhoods — from Salt Lake to Sonarpur; not something you easily spot in other cities across India. They come stacked with wooden boxes of tea and metal containers with ‘cha’ written in bold, red Bangla script, and stock tea from Darjeeling and Assam thanks to the city’s history of tea trade and proximity to the tea gardens of Darjeeling and Assam. Many smaller tea leaf sellers also keep the tea from Nepal, described as a good tea at a low price. Then there are venerable names like the Mahabodhi Tea House on Hazra More and the tea leaf sellers in Lal Bazaar, lined across the road from the Kolkata police headquarters.

 Kolkatas love for loose-leaf tea is a longstanding tradition — one the citys cha houses cater to with care

CTC and Darjeeling tea blend. Image courtesy of Reshmi Chakraborty

Most Bengali households in Kolkata still get their tea from these shops, their special blends of CTC and Darjeeling packed into small packets of 250 grams. Natural tea doesn’t store well so buying in bulk is usually discouraged.

Bishnu Bhattacharya, 65, has been buying tea forever from the 35-year-old Dhruba Tea Centre. The former Kolkata resident lives in Mumbai now but takes back his stash of tea during multiple visits. “Earlier when I used to work near Esplanade (an office area near Lal Bazar), I’d come here every week to buy tea. Once you are used to the taste of original tea leaves, you cannot like packaged tea from the supermarket.”

Avik Banerjee of Mahabodhi Tea House agrees. A blender par excellence, his passion for tea shows in the way he loves talking about it. And you are glad he does, because for the layperson, it’s tough to differentiate between Halmari, Darjeeling Giddapahar, Assam Orthodox, Muscatel, Fanning and the many tea varieties that a 75-year-old store like Mahabodhi stocks.

avik b at mahabodhi 825

Avik Banerjee at Mahabodhi Tea House

Surrounded by wooden chests of tea leaves packed up to the ceiling, marked with the names of the tea gardens, stacks of gunny bags, weighing scales and an aroma that’s part-tea leaf, part wood, Banerjee asks new customers about the kind of blend they’d like. In April 2018, the world’s most expensive CTC tea was bought by the owners of Mahabodhi at the Tea Board auction in Kolkata. CTC is the ‘crush’ ‘tear’ ‘curl’ method of processing black tea. It now retails here between Rs 500 a kg to Rs 1,500/kg. “Steep it for five minutes,” Banerjee instructs a customer, adding more tea related information. The price difference is because of varying elevation levels; always store tea in a metal jar – never glass or plastic.

Why has loose leaf tea always been in demand in Kolkata? Tea sellers attribute it to the British influence on Bengali culture. Camellia sinensis always grew in the North East but the British started cultivating it commercially in the 1830s to shake Chinese influence over the market. Since Kolkata was the hub of tea trade, the tea companies started targeting well-heeled Bengalis, writes Indologist Philip Lutgendorf in an essay. The Anglicised babumoshai had his tea “steeped in porcelain "china" pots, accompanied by pitchers of warm milk and spoonfuls of sugar,” he notes. The habit has trickled down over generations, from the upper to the middle class.

With the variety of tea available off supermarket shelves now and the many flavours available in tea bags, is there is a chance Kolkata’s loose-leaf habit may fade out?

Souvari Modak of Dhruba Tea Centre concedes to a slight market change. “Earlier, our local Bengali customers would go for Darjeeling loose leaf or Fanning (half leaf or broken, makes a strong brew). Now with people preferring different ways to make tea and a change in the city’s population profile, CTC loose leaf is preferred.”

Evening line to buy tea at DHRUBA TEA CENTRE

Evening line to buy tea at Dhruba Tea Centre. Image courtesy of Reshmi Chakraborty

The other factor has been the price.

“You cannot buy good quality Darjeeling Tea for lesser than Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,500 per kilo,” he adds.

If money might keep the new generation Kolkata resident away, the other is time, tea sellers think. The ideal way to make a classic tea infusion is to boil the water and pour it over the tea leaves, steeping it for 3-5 minutes, based on the strength you need. “People don’t have that kind of time nowadays.”

Despite changes, Kolkata loves holding on to some habits. “Those who want good quality tea at a reasonable price always prefer to come, select and buy their tea,” says Modak, the line of customers outside his store and at other popular tea sellers across Lal Bazaar, a testament to that.

“Competing with artificial, flavoured tea is not easy but those who know their tea will always prefer to buy the natural product,” says Banerjee, whose store sees clients across four generations coming in to buy their blends and discerning connoisseurs who wait for their preferred batch of Jungpana (not every variety is available every season as it depends on the weather and yield) or Castleton.

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Updated Date: Apr 07, 2019 12:09:48 IST

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