The major tea producing countries of the world, including India, celebrated December 15 as International Tea Day. The country, meanwhile, is gearing up for the second edition of Tea Festival India, launched when India’s tea production and export touched a record high in 2015-16.
Back in Kerala, where the per capita tea consumption is higher than that of the country, it is the official brew to welcome mornings, guests, rainy days, late nights and lighter moments.
Here’s to a few time-honored tea shop prototypes reminiscent of the cultural landscape of Kasaragod.
Ramettan’s Tea Shop
In Kaari panchayat, Nileswaram, Ramettan’s chayakkada (tea shop) is a point of reference. For a good reason too, since there isn’t much that hasn’t changed in the last 60 odd years. So, directions, houses and other variables are located on the map of this little country in relation to the constant that Ramettan’s tea shop is.
What has changed about the thatched shack is that Ramettan is no longer here. After he passed away 15 years ago, his wife, who the villagers fondly refer to as Paruvettathy, has kept the shop going.
Old timers still make a beeline to the shop early morning, a habit that has grown on them. They vouch for Paruvettathy’s tea making skills, although she says she only knows what she picked up from helping out Ramettan at the shop through the years. She’s hoping to put up four decent walls to house the shop before time runs out.
Tea and charity
K V Venu and wife Baby have a charity box displayed prominently at their tea shop-cum-thattu kada (wayside shop) on Devan Road, Kanhangad. The money dropped by customers is collected and handed over to the needy by this couple who subsist on the modest income from the shop.
Venu and Baby discovered the philanthropy-inducing powers of hot tea - especially after a satisfying meal - a few years ago. The couple heard of the plight of a little boy in the locality who suffered from bone marrow cancer. The boy’s family was not able to provide him adequate medical help because they could not afford it.
Venu and Baby came up with a plan. Their thattukada was doing well and a good number of people walked in everyday for tea and food. On random days in a month, they offered tea and food for free to the customers. The pleasantly surprised customers were told of the little boy and the charity box in the shop. They could collect Rs 15,619 for the little boy, says Venu.
The box has stayed on as a permanent fixture at the shop. Anyone who cares to spare a dime after a plate of dosa and hot tea can drop it in the box. And the couple, who has been selling tea for 28 years now, steadfastly believes that the brew is what enables them to do their bit of charity.
The AC tea shop (nature-sponsored)
Thampan’s tea shop in Pungamchal is air conditioned. Or, so goes the favorite catchphrase of regulars at this thattukada that boasts of a thick canopy that makes it the coolest hangout in the locality. The canopy is Thampan’s own making, through the 15 years that the shop has been serving tea and snacks. The road in front of the shop, leading to Pungamchal junction, is lined with flowering plants on both sides.
The idyllic setting, crafted by the ingenious Thampan to resemble a movie set, has earned the shop a troop of loyal customers. But then it wouldn’t make the cut as the favorite tea destination of Pungamchal if the brew did not match up to the ambiance, say the villagers. All of them would vote for the tea at Thampan’s thattukada if there was to be a contest to pick the yummiest tea available in the locality. No wonder then that elections are busy days at the shop with ministers, political leaders and the entourage of important people making a beeline to the popular thattukada.
Piping hot kalthappam with a glass of tea
For a lot of tea drinkers in Kasargod, the official side dish is a plate of piping hot kalthappam and gravy. This Malabar delicacy, made with rice flour, jaggery and onions, is perfected to a tee at Balakrishnan’s thattukada near Kasargod block panchayat office.
No prizes for guessing that this humble wayside shop belies its huge fan following. The shop has a steady flow of customers beginning from 7 in the morning. The regular breakfast business of idli and dosa gets done by about 11 am. By then, the tempting aroma of freshly cooked kalthappam begins to waft through the air.
Kalthappam is served with fish or vegetable gravy. Wash it all down with Balakrishnan’s signature cuppa or take little sips between mouthfuls of kalthappam; by the time you are done, you are already planning your next trip. Happy as he is to have you back in the shop each time, Balakrishnan says his Kalthappam recipe is a closely guarded secret.
Tea, snacks, dosa and curry – pick any for Rs 5
Aalinkal Aandy’s tea shop is the dream haven of tea lovers. Tea, snacks, dosa-curry – everything comes at Rs 5. And no, GST does not make any difference to the economics of Nisha Tea Stall in Pulloor on the Kanhangad—Kasargode highway.
Aandy’s tea shop has stood the ground for a good 47 years now. It was on October 6, 1970 that he opened shop, taking competitors head on by offering tea at 6 paise. The standard rate back then in that part of the world was 10 paise per tea. He kept up his low prising USP despite the price rise through the years. In 2014, the shop saw a major price hike – tea, fried snacks, dosa and kadala curry (channa) have since been pegged at Rs 5 per glass/piece.
For those stumped by the viability of the pricing, Aandy’s business principle is even more baffling – I don’t look at the math of it all” – he simply quips.
Gautama Buddha was on a pilgrimage. For the next nine years, he was to meditate without sleeping as a way to practice the toughest tenets of Zen Buddhism and thereby achieve enlightenment. He did this for days and months and years living as a recluse and completing over half of the period. But then, in a moment of extreme fatigue, he closed his eyes and dozed off. Jolted awake as suddenly from his slumber, he was furious and disappointed with himself. He tore off his eyelids which had closed over his eyes without his knowing and threw them to the ground. The leaf-shaped eyelids sprouted right away into a plant with leaves resembling the lids. Buddha plucked a leaf and chewed it to find that therein lay the solution to the riddle. The scent and the taste of the leaf were invigorating; helping him stay focused and accomplish his mission. The leaves of that plant that sprouted from eyelids - tea leaves as we know it today – became closely associated with Zen Buddism and Chinese traditions.
China thus had a good reason to closely guard its monopoly over tea trade. The finest leaves grown and processed in the highlands of the vast country were saved for natives and the second quality leaves were exported to other countries. Britain, although basking in imperial glory, had no access to first quality tea and traded opium to the Chinese in return for tea. This arrangement was toppled when the Chinese started growing their own opium. The British countered this move with a tit-for-tat ; a spy well-versed in horticulture and China’s geography was assigned the job of whisking away choicest seeds and saplings along with the secrets of growing and processing tea. Traveling through China in disguise, Robert Fortune pulled off the feat and smuggled out consignments of finest tea saplings which soon thrived in the Indian soil on the foothills of the Himalayas. The Chinese monopoly over tea was destroyed through what is perhaps one of the most cleverly executed heists in history.
Tea, tee, thee, teo, der tee, ch’a are all names that the brew is known by in different parts of the world. Green tea and black tea are leaves from the same plants, processed differently. Other variations like Oolong tea, White tea, Yellow tea are all said to have therapeutic effects.
As the world today celebrates it as the second most popular drink after water, festivals dedicated to the brew are cropping up around the globe. Sydney Tea Festival, Toronto Tea Festival and Cylone Tea Festival are some of the famous ones. India, second largest producer of tea after China, has its own editions of the festival in Assam and Bengaluru and a country-wide festival was added in 2017.
Stocked up on these tea facts, one finally realize why that Zen Buddhist-like awareness and general peace with life descends during tea-drinking moments. So why not brew a cuppa now?