An Indian in search of the perfect cup of tea

Neha Sinha
Neha SinhaDec 15, 2016 | 19:29

An Indian in search of the perfect cup of tea

It was the onset of winter. There was a bite in North India’s air. After a long day, I had taken a flight to Sri Lanka. I was excited about the visit because I wanted to experience Sri Lanka’s island biodiversity; and in a much more personal capacity, I wanted to drink Sri Lankan tea, from a Sri Lankan cup, made in a Sri Lankan way.


Being Bengali-Assamese, tea runs in my veins. I often joke that in the face of the frothiest of cappuccinos and the most seductive of dark espressos, I will always dive for a dulcet malty Assam. Coffee seems tied to work, and tea embodies leisure. Coffee jolts you awake, while tea is that cooperative potion that can sing you a lullaby or keep you awake if you need it. You stir the tea, watching the milk dissolve into the brew, hypnotised; at other times, you watch drops of lemon juice turn black tea to gold. The translucent colours are processed gradually by the eye just like the smell and taste seeps into the body- slowly, surely, and very much at ease.

Sometimes, the problem is not in the tea itself, but our expectation of it. [Photo: Indiatoday.in]

I landed in Sri Lanka at midnight. My place of stay was an old bungalow. There was no question of having any tea at that time, and I told myself the next morning would be tea-time. The next morning brought flies, heat and a tea in a tea bag. Tea bags are said to contain the worst of tea, and it’s a tragedy that cafes all around India will make you carefully frothed cup of coffee, but will hand you just a baleful tea bag and a boiling cup of water in the name of tea. Yet, tea bags of Sri Lanka too hold favour- Dilmah is one of my favourite brands, right up there with British Twinings.


Suffice to say though, that morning’s cup of tea felt manufactured, tepid and tasteless. Maybe it was the divorce from the feeling of a winter cup of tea- the island was experiencing anything but winter. Maybe it was the disappointment of not getting a brewed, “Sri-Lankan” cup of tea.

Sometimes, the problem is not in the tea itself, but our expectation of it. I recall other cups of tea which have felt like an assault on my senses: tea in forest villages in Rajasthan, Haryana and Uttarakhand. The tea is served in tiny cups, and basically comprises shots of buffalo milk and sugar, with very few drops of actual tea liqueur. What you are drinking is not just milk, it feels like the very innards of a buffalo: the stench of the milk is overwhelming, the amount of tea too little to actually taste like tea.

I recall tea in parts of Mumbai: hot, urgent, sweet, milky, served in efficient cutting glasses, to be drunk on the way to work, a bit like coffee. The heat of the city is the heat in the little chai glass; the glass is humid and moist, not enough to burn you, but certainly enough to dampen your temples and moisten your palms.


A few years ago, I visited the Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu, home to many tea and coffee estates. The Nilgiris are also called blue mountains- because of a serene bluish tinge to the hills, covered in swathes of tropical forest as well as hills aflush with tea. Gambolling in a tea estate in Nilgiris is unlike strolling in the sultry tea gardens of Assam. Unlike Assam, the Nilgiri tea estates are ensconced in cooler climes. A run through the gardens feels like a bite on the cheeks, you wait to catch your breath because it is some parts cold and all parts parts exhilarating. Most tea estates will let you buy tea as well as walk through the tea estates. I had done both, I had walked two kilometres through and in tea gardens, and had just purchased tea from one of the little outlets outside the estate.

My next, natural question was if I could have an actual cup of tea. The man at the counter refused, saying he would normally make tea, but he didn’t have gas that day. Instead of sipping live tea next to the estate on which it was grown, all I could do was carry it back to Delhi and brew it in a somewhat unimpressive urban kitchen. Urban kitchens may boast of fancy tea kettles and hand knitted tea-cosies, but the gas is usually piped or from cylinders. There is a different sort of excitement to have tea in rural India; brewed above a wooden fire, in an ancient aluminium kettle, with a rough cloth hewn around the handle for insulation. The tea is served very hot onto little glasses or mud kullads, the glasses may or may not be clean but the experience is wholesome.

The interaction between the tea and its kettle, and the very process of making tea, is part of the consumption of the tea. The BBC adaptation of Sherlock Holmes’ The Blind Banker opens with a museum worker who cares for ancient teapots. The tea in the pot is important, but the ceramic pot itself is at least as important: the fired pottery has its own stories, old, worn, but highly functional. That is perhaps why teapots and kettles form some of the best dining table pieces- you can get them in the Raku style of pottery, suffused with smoky patterns; you can get them in chrome finished steel; you can get them with patterns of Victorian leaves and flowers with bamboo handles.

Amongst the best cups of tea I have is in crowded Old Delhi’s Aap Ki Pasand. A tea-maker in a chef’s hat brews the tea for you and helps you pick a good tea to buy. “You must let the tea stew in the pot for a minute before serving,” this master tells me. You have to let the tea meditate, to be. Tea is about patience and mindfulness, rather than just quick-shot caffeine. Aap Ki Pasand itself is like a meditation, with rows of teas in secret cloth bags tied with golden string, holding possibilities from delicate, translucent cups of tea to sturdy, whipping dark flavours.

Other favourite cups of tea: served with love by my mother in a cup that comically says “coffee”, served after a day of unnamed anxiety. Anxiety I can neither put my finger on nor give words to.

Tea served in a forest to me by the Toda tribe. Milky tea, but a relief from leech infested rain.

Tea served to me by me; not quite right, but malty, strong and heady.

I realise then, that tea is a feeling.

As Indians we have a strong love for our teas. We like our tea differently; some like it served in floral tea-kettles with tea cosies with katha work on them, others like it in tall steel tumblers, yet others in dhabha style glasses. As you travel in different parts of India, you get tea served as “laal cha” (tea with milk) or lemon tea, sometimes chai infused with masala, very rarely served just black tea.

Tea feels like instant noodles: always there, eponymous, comforting, yet amorphous in the ways it gets prepared. As winter comes, tea is a constant companion; tea is the feeling of blankets and warmth, and suffused with a drop of rum, it is the promise of storytelling.

Yet I have found that if you expect the perfect cup of tea, you very rarely get it.

Instead, I have now learnt to accept tea as a feeling rather than a taste. The Sri Lanka trip ended, oddly, with very few good cups of tea. The more I chased a cup of perfect reddened tea, the more I was handed tea with far too much sugar, sometimes boiled to bitterness, sometimes boringly straight-jacketed tea-bag tea.

But some of the hot-water-tea-bag-infusions I got played some part in calming me, reminding me of rain fed tea estates. One imagines that cultivating a taste for the perfect cup of tea, with the right accents, the right scent, and just the right drops of milk and sweetness, is a mark of sophistication. I am now learning though that it is far more sophisticated to have one’s own tastes but also embrace others.

Sometimes a cup of tea is an accident; a sort of alchemy. Sometimes it’s a brutish regalement of the cook’s tastes on the rest of the unsuspecting Universe. Sometimes a cup of tea is not the tea but the meeting itself. And as winter descends, tea grants warmth and sanity.

Tea is a vision, a vision one chases each day. You can’t really bag tea, because the bag feels like a confinement of flavour. But tea-bags, like tea itself, is a feeling one can shape.

So, despite my love-hate for tea bags, I came back from Sri Lanka with a nameless, unbranded tea bag tucked away at the bottom of my suitcase.  

Last updated: December 15, 2016 | 19:40
Please log in
I agree with DailyO's privacy policy