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I'd like to think I know a bit about English, Japanese and Chinese tea varietals, but I really don't know my Assam from my Darjeeling.

Can anyone elaborate what all the major Indian tea varietals are, how they are prepared, what teas go best with what kind of Indian food and what are the best times of day (and time of year) to drink them?

And besides the classic English way of serving tea, are there any Indian-specific tea customs I should know about? And what goes into a "masala" tea?

Jason Perlow

Co-Founder, The Society for Culinary Arts & Letters

offthebroiler.com - Food Blog | View my food photos on Instagram

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here's a surprisingly good site from the indian tea board:

http://64.95.196.106/

and here's a listing of the qualities of (more than just indian) teas from some company:

http://www.quartermaine.com/teas/varieties...ixup=01&userID=

generally, darjeeling tea is delicate and light, assam is full-bodied and dark. some people blend assam and darjeeling teas for flavor and strength. the tea from the dooars (on the assam border in north bengal) is close to assam tea--we lived in the dooars for 2 years in the early 80s and had lots of friends among the tea planters. the land there is amazingly fertile--drop something in the soil and it grows.

tea-snobs will distinguish further by estate and first or second flush. here in the u.s i buy boxes of lipton green label loose-leaf from indian stores and i'm happy--i think it is a darjeeling blend.

in north bengal and assam the industry is in tragic decline right now, with the brunt being borne mostly by already destitute pickers (the whole history of tea plantations in bengal and assam is pretty sordid)--a few days ago i'd posted a link to the general news forum an article about a terrible thing that happened recently in bengal. not sure how the darjeeling industry is faring--i went to boarding school in darjeeling for some years (though we served atrocious tea) and many of my classmates were children of tea-planters from assam and north bengal.

in my family we mostly drink darjeeling tea, mostly in the english style (not for nothing was calcutta the capital of the empire till the 19teens)--brewed in a pot, 1 tspn tea leaves per cup--for 3-5 minutes. i take mine black with sugar, the rest of my family with milk as well. my favorite tea-preparation, however, is the strong tea (water, tea, milk, sugar boiled together) served in little clay cups that we used to get in indian trains till the early-mid 90s. not the horrible tea that was served in thermoses by the trains' dining cars but the tea from the chai-wallahs who would hop on the train, huge kettle and a stack of clay cups in hand, when it entered a station and then hop off by the time it left. the flavor i am convinced was enhanced by the clay--and when you got done, there was the pleasure of tossing the bio-degradable vessel out of the window and watching it smash on the tracks whizzing by. these days, regrettably, the vendors seem to have made the move to plastic cups.

edited to add this link as well: http://www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/EK20Df01.html

and jason, what is an english tea varietal? england doesn't grow any tea--outside of botanical gardens, that is.

Edited by mongo_jones (log)
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what teas go best with what kind of Indian food and what are the best times of day (and time of year) to drink them?

missed this completely.

as far as i know tea is not drunk "with" any kind of food. it is to tea-drinking indians what coffee is to most north-americans: a drink best enjoyed after waking up but consumed all day. many people serve tea and snacks (pakodas, samosas, sweets etc.) to visitors in the evening but i don't know that there is any particular food item that tea is matched with. and i don't think too many people drink tea after dinner the way coffee is often drunk.

what does go really well with tea, of course, is biscuits (not the american kind). take a good non-fruity biscuit (ideally brittania chocolate bourbon), dip it in the tea till the dangerous moment before it dissolves and then bite into it. mmm mmm mmm--my morning ritual. (there's a thread about this in the u.k forum too.)

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and jason, what is an english tea varietal? england doesn't grow any tea--outside of botanical gardens, that is.

I'm aware of that, I'm specifically referring to things like English Breakfast, Earl Grey and other like tea-blends that come from a variety of sources including India. But there has been so much stuff done to them by the time they have been altered and packaged as English Tea they really don't resemble their component parts anymore.

Jason Perlow

Co-Founder, The Society for Culinary Arts & Letters

offthebroiler.com - Food Blog | View my food photos on Instagram

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That Indian tea board site is cool. The only two Indian teas I knew about were Assam and Darjeeling, I didnt know about Nilgiri, I'll have to try and get some at the local Indian stores here in New Jersey.

Jason Perlow

Co-Founder, The Society for Culinary Arts & Letters

offthebroiler.com - Food Blog | View my food photos on Instagram

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I'm specifically referring to things like English Breakfast, Earl Grey and other like tea-blends that come from a variety of sources including India. But there has been so much stuff done to them by the time they have been altered and packaged as English Tea they really don't resemble their component parts anymore.

can someone please explain the appeal of earl grey to me? and while we're on the subject can we stop calling things that don't have tea in them tea? i'm sick and tired of asking for tea in american restaurants and being presented with fancy chests full of everything but actual tea: call it herb water or something but don't call it tea.

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My basic tea at home is a Nilgiri tea, grown by the A.V.Thomas group on their Sutton plantations. It was mostly for export and my father knows someone in the AVT offices, so he got it for me, and still does, in large canfuls.

Its now being sold on the market here, at least in south India and I strongly recommend it. Its got a good, strong flavour, but with none of the harsh tannin back taste that rules out most blends like the BrookeBond Lipton ones for those like me who prefer their tea black.

I'm also very fond of Kashmiri tea though, which is green and brewed with almonds and spices. Lots of recipes on the net - look for 'kahwa' - most of them made by brewing a strong green tea with saffron, cardamoms, cinnamon and chopped almonds.

Swati Snacks, the most interesting restaurant in Bombay, brews a very good version with lots of cloves that I have been trying to replicate with no success. I've got an easy way of doing this which is simply to add to the tea a readymade saffron-cardamom syrup which you can get in some Maharashtrian shops in Bombay.

Vikram

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Swati Snacks, the most interesting restaurant in Bombay,

Yes, yes, YES.

I'm so glad someone agrees with me, ever since I ate there a couple of times a couple of months ago, I've been raving unstoppably about the food at Swati.

Been going there for years, like most young South Bombayites, but I had not been since the renovation which has left it all stainless-steel and spotless. Or since the menu ramped up to the point where you can cheerfully skip the sev puris. Or, frankly, since it became unbesmirchably clean.

Everything I ate there in those two visits was superb, perfectly made, totally traditional but so unusual as to appear artful and innovative. There was a mild curry, made with ripe guava. There was another, made with kokum, which was served with a perfect jowar khichidi. There were ragada pattice, crispy and totally un-greasy, which a restaurant in NY could make its reputation on. And there was the sugar-cane juice, served with a promise that it was 100% clean and would result in no stomach ailments.

The word is overused, but I will use it, Swati was a bit of a revelation to me, even though I've been going there for at least 20 years.

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Everything I ate there in those two visits was superb, perfectly made, totally traditional but so unusual as to appear artful and innovative. There was a mild curry, made with ripe guava. There was another, made with kokum, which was served with a perfect jowar khichidi. There were ragada pattice, crispy and totally un-greasy, which a restaurant in NY could make its reputation on. And there was the sugar-cane juice, served with a promise that it was 100% clean and would result in no stomach ailments.

Swati is simply outstanding. I've interviewed Asha Jhaveri and written on her at length, but can't remember if I've already posted this or not on eGullet. I could post you the piece if you like.

If someone has little time in Bombay and just wants to do one or two meals, I tell them to go to Swati. Its one of the few restaurants where I feel there is someone really interested in food behind it. A lot of what Asha Jhaveri does is really interesting and different - she's doing fusion in a way that puts to shame the bastardised way its done by everyone else.

She's fusing across Indian traditions - that thalipith doesn't normally team up with the besan pitla, but how simply fantastic it is - and the results are outstanding. As you saw with the ragada pattice, she is also looking at ways to make food in a healthy way, hence her interest in whole grains like the (outstanding!) jowar khichidi served with kokam osaman that you had.

And she's reviving dishes that were common in houses, but either no one makes them any more because they are too fiddly (the panki, rice crepes steamed in banana leaves) or too specific to a particular community. That ripe guava curry you ate, which simply blew my mind when I ate it, is an example. Its an old Gujju Jain dish - my Jain friends groan when I describe it, "I can't believe it, you were eating jamphal-nu-shak, what's so special about that?" And I'm like, "well excuse me, I've known you for so long, and how come I never ate it at your place?"

I recently took a fairly well known American chef, Michael Nischan there and he was just raving about it. He said he's been in India quite often and thought he was getting a hang of Indian food, but these were taste sensations he had never come across.

Vikram

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I recently took a fairly well known American chef, Michael Nischan there and he was just raving about it. He said he's been in India quite often and thought he was getting a hang of Indian food, but these were taste sensations he had never come across.

Totally buy it. Your comments are a bit reassuring because I too have been raving about the place (after only two meals there, though) and it's good to know that it's consistently astonishing.

Please do e-mail me the article on Swati, or post it here for everyone. I'm very interested.

One thing -

You say she's "fusing across Indian traditions", is that strictly true? What are the traditions?

It seems to me that the food comes from a roughly contiguous strip of territory stretching along the Konkan coast up all the way to Gujerat, lands which have always related to each other.

Anyway, I was not kidding at all when I made reference to New York and the foodie/restaurant scene here. If someone could come close to reproducing that fantastic series of dishes abroad, they'd completely shake the perception of what Indian food can be like. Hell, two meals at Swati certainly managed to shake mine, even in India.

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I'm specifically referring to things like English Breakfast, Earl Grey and other like tea-blends that come from a variety of sources including India. But there has been so much stuff done to them by the time they have been altered and packaged as English Tea they really don't resemble their component parts anymore.

can someone please explain the appeal of earl grey to me? and while we're on the subject can we stop calling things that don't have tea in them tea? i'm sick and tired of asking for tea in american restaurants and being presented with fancy chests full of everything but actual tea: call it herb water or something but don't call it tea.

i like earl grey actually. the citrusy perfumeyness of the bergamot just tastes really good when the tea is brewed strong and cream and sugar are added. it's an afternoon tea now.

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You say she's "fusing across Indian traditions", is that strictly true? What are the traditions?

It seems to me that the food comes from a roughly contiguous strip of territory stretching along the Konkan coast up all the way to Gujerat, lands which have always related to each other.

bhelpuri,

i don't mean to answer for vikram--i'm not that foolhardy--but the sense in which i took his comment is the sense in which food in our home growing up (and in my wife and mine now) is "fused across traditions". my father was in the air-force and we lived all over india and everywhere we lived we had friends from all over india--both locals and other displaced airforce officers. thus after a certain time a lunch time meal cooked by my mother included certain classically bengali dishes along with dishes she'd learnt from people from other places, and also dishes from other places that got significant bengali accents. this kind of thing is not usually considered fusion since when we think about "fusion" we mostly think about "east-west" fusion. thus even that strip of konkan coast may normally comprise fairly discrete food-practices that are being made to speak to each other at swati, let alone the more radical mixing that can happen in the armed forces or other regularly displaced context in india.

in our home here in colorado, this has taken on another dimension with my non-regional regional cooking meeting my wife's very excellent take on her own korean culinary tradition. thus our meal last night was punjabi style rajma, bengali alu-gobi, a take on a goanese pomfret dish, alongside korean panchan like kim-chi, toasted sea-weed and cold-spinach with garlic and sesame.

mongo

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thus even that strip of konkan coast may normally comprise fairly discrete food-practices that are being made to speak to each other at swati,

Actually, I didn't mean to leave the impression that Swati is a Konkan restaurant. In fact, it's Gujerati, and made its name as a clean purveyor of Gujju-influenced Bombay street food like sev batata puri and pani puri, etc. It was the only place that I could get away with openly eating that stuff, as a kid.

But the more interesting dishes - which have emerged since Swati was redone - are different. These are very fresh and new to my palate, but the underpinnings seem pretty orthodox (speaking in regional terms). For instance, the kokum curry with the jowar khichidi seems like a very plausible item from the Maharashtrian part of the Konkan. Etc. Admittedly, I've never had a jowar khichidi before eating the wonderful version at Swati.

Anyway, the geographical strip in question has all kind of long-standing cultural and political ties. For roughly a century, for example, it was part of the larger unit known as the Bombay Presidency (though, granted, this unit encompasses a vast territory including many many totally disparate cultures and cuisines).

Anyway, I was hoping to hear more about this suggested fusion aspect of Swati's food from Vikram, who will no doubt be able to describe it extremely precisely.

--

It's quite different (what I'm describing) to the 'all Indians are my brothers and sisters' enjoyable culinary mish-mash that might be displayed in an officer's colony tea party, and several giant steps away from the kimchi-stuffed hilsa (or buglogi cooked in mustard oil?) that might result from your interesting personal adventure in cross-cultural affairs.

--

Anyway, I've seen it several times and was going to let it slide, but perhaps not.

a take on a goanese pomfret dish

'Goanese' is much worse than writing 'Parsee', and it's significantly worse than saying 'Keralan' instead of Malayali (or Keralite). At the wrong moment, it's a fighting word. The correct term (which I've also seen you use) is Goan.

I know an entertaining old fellow, who when referred to as 'Goanese' in public always used to respond "Go an' ease yourself!"

Kindly refrain.

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a take on a goanese pomfret dish

'Goanese' is much worse than writing 'Parsee', and it's significantly worse than saying 'Keralan' instead of Malayali (or Keralite). At the wrong moment, it's a fighting word. The correct term (which I've also seen you use) is Goan.

I know an entertaining old fellow, who when referred to as 'Goanese' in public always used to respond "Go an' ease yourself!"

Kindly refrain.

i can't believe i wrote that--all this keralese and not keralese must have gone to my brain.

and several giant steps away from the kimchi-stuffed hilsa (or buglogi cooked in mustard oil?) that might result from your interesting personal adventure in cross-cultural affairs.

see, the things you describe would be examples of "forced" fusion to me--which is not to say that someone might not be able to do it well or interestingly. but we aren't stuffing hilsa with kimchi or cooking bulgogi in mustard oil (in those senses we're both very traditional--hilsa is never insulted by being stuffed with anything)--how these things fuse on our table is by simply being eaten together. some korean dishes and some bengali dishes go very well together. in india, for the most part, punjabis eat punjabi food and bengalis eat bengali food--there are very few contexts in which people encounter food from other regions (outside of the mughlai which is of no region) and even fewer in which the food of different regions mix on the same table or plate in a harmonious manner.

and the kind of thing i was describing as my particular airforce food heritage is not an officers-colony tea-party mish-mash either. i'm suggesting instead a cross-pollination and adoption of different regional styles and foods due to a juxtaposition that is still fairly rare in indian society--though with the new corporate jobs people are moving away from comfort zones more frequently than before. as a result of eating in so many south indian homes my family both loves sambhar (my mother served it in place of mushoor dal with bengali dishes) and has come to use certain ingredients (like curry leaves) in otherwise bengali dishes.

this sort of very indian fusion is much more interesting to me than french trained chefs tarting their dishes up with a little dash of roasted cumin or garam masala. as vikram has noted in an earlier thread (i think) this is a fairly contemporary phenomenon--and is something that perhaps is likelier to be driven by restaurants than home kitchens (which are usually more regionally fixed).

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And getting back to the tea...

There are very distinct characteristics that define the Darjeeling style of tea and the Assam style of tea, and they go beyond geography.

Darjeeling often appears to have been processed in a less mechanized, more rustic manner, evidenced by close examination of a sample of darjeeling. You'll see some unevenness in the leaf color, with the brown oxidized leaf juxtaposed with hints of green, unoxidized leaf... that has always made me wonder about the method they use to roll the leaves before leaving them to wither and oxidize... and become black tea. Darjeeling is always characterized by its high-notes. It has fruity notes, it has sharp notes, it has the capability of becoming quite astringent if brewed with water that is too hot, or left to steep too long. It is fragile, delicate, and easily wrecked by following the instructions printed on every tea box that demands water at a rolling boil and five minutes of steeping time.

Assam's dry leaves, on the other hand, generally appears more uniform, and are definitely allowed to oxidize more than Darjeeling is. Assam leaf will always look darker, though the leaf form is more variable. Assam is a center for the CTC method of processing, which takes leaves and machines them into a more uniform appearance, and allows for a much more full oxidization. Some gardens there still use the traditional method that maintains the leaves in a more whole state. The flavor notes of Assams are more low notes. There is a toasty, cookie-like note that is characteristic of Assam teas. Assams can take a more vigorous brewing like the standard tea box instructions. Their tannins don't become so astringent like Darjeeling's do.

Beware that these are generalizations, and you'll find that some growers are experimental and do break with the traditions that lead to the tea's characteristics.

And... I've not played with enough of the Nilgiris or Dooars to be able to characterize them... does either have a characteristic style? The examples of both that I've tried have been overly astringent and tannic... probably a sign that the growers need some practice... maybe just my poor selections.

Anyway, those are my personal thoughts.

Christopher D. Holst aka "cdh"

Learn to brew beer with my eGCI course

Chris Holst, Attorney-at-Lunch

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can someone please explain the appeal of earl grey to me?

Actually I like earl grey very much, but I drink it very weak (like two dips), which makes it more of colored flavoured water, and I drink it without milk or sugar.

I find chai to be more of a desert. Nilgiri cardamom tea is my favourite.

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  • 2 weeks later...
And getting back to the tea...

There are very distinct characteristics that define the Darjeeling style of tea and the Assam style of tea, and they go beyond geography.

Darjeeling often appears to have been processed in a less mechanized, more rustic manner, evidenced by close examination of a sample of darjeeling. You'll see some unevenness in the leaf color, with the brown oxidized leaf juxtaposed with hints of green, unoxidized leaf... that has always made me wonder about the method they use to roll the leaves before leaving them to wither and oxidize... and become black tea. Darjeeling is always characterized by its high-notes. It has fruity notes, it has sharp notes, it has the capability of becoming quite astringent if brewed with water that is too hot, or left to steep too long. It is fragile, delicate, and easily wrecked by following the instructions printed on every tea box that demands water at a rolling boil and five minutes of steeping time.

Assam's dry leaves, on the other hand, generally appears more uniform, and are definitely allowed to oxidize more than Darjeeling is. Assam leaf will always look darker, though the leaf form is more variable. Assam is a center for the CTC method of processing, which takes leaves and machines them into a more uniform appearance, and allows for a much more full oxidization. Some gardens there still use the traditional method that maintains the leaves in a more whole state. The flavor notes of Assams are more low notes. There is a toasty, cookie-like note that is characteristic of Assam teas. Assams can take a more vigorous brewing like the standard tea box instructions. Their tannins don't become so astringent like Darjeeling's do.

Beware that these are generalizations, and you'll find that some growers are experimental and do break with the traditions that lead to the tea's characteristics.

And... I've not played with enough of the Nilgiris or Dooars to be able to characterize them... does either have a characteristic style? The examples of both that I've tried have been overly astringent and tannic... probably a sign that the growers need some practice... maybe just my poor selections.

Anyway, those are my personal thoughts.

Great explanation on Darjeelings and Assam except one point, Assam teas are a different species of Camellia Sinesis. Assam teas are from Camellia Assamica.

Cheers

slowfood/slowwine

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