My family does not drink chai. That’s not to say we don’t drink tea, we just don’t boil it with milk, water, sugar and spices. In fact, we probably drink more tea than most but how and why we do it is peculiar and particular to a constellation of factors. At a quarter to six every morning, my father boils two litres of water and pours them over two heaped teaspoons of long curled up tea leaves. He lets the brew steep for about four minutes and strains it into his thermos and a ceramic pot for my mother, which he leaves on my mother’s writing table, under a tea cozy made from reclaimed baby clothes that once belonged to me and my siblings. Laden with his thermos, he retreats into a secluded room, which we call his ‘sulking corner’, for the next three hours. They each start their days with four cups of this thin, yellow fragrant brew and drink a few more through the day; one cup around 11am; a couple more in the afternoon; and sometimes one after supper. Not only is this quantity of tea drinking is excessive, even by Indian standards, but what we drink is also an unusual tea. Specifically, we drink lightly steeped full-leaf Orange Pekoe (OP) Nilgiri Tea.
The Nilgiri is a mountain range in southern India, a part of the Western Ghats, which is located at the interstice of the states of Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu. The Nilgiri district is now entirely in the state of Tamil Nadu but was a part of the Madras Presidency of the British Raj when tea was introduced to the region in the early nineteenth century. Located eleven degrees north of the Equator and on average 2000 meters above sea level, these hills were home to thousands of flora, fauna, and tribes that have been displaced to create tea plantations. In fact, the name Nilgiri or Blue Mountain refers to an indigenous shrub, Neelakurinji (Strobilanthes kunthiana) whose purplish-blue flowers only bloom once every twelve years but once covered these mountains like a carpet. The fifteen recognised indigenous groups in the region have received much attention from anthropologists because their relative isolation has resulted in some unique phenotypic qualities and cultural practices in comparison to the larger populations of South India.
While tea in the northern region of Assam was already being exported to the West, in southern elevated regions like the Nigiri and Ceylon, tea was only introduced by the mid-nineteenth century after a few experiments of different varieties to see what could work. The hills in the Western Ghats have abundant natural rainfall and reach elevations typically higher than the tea growing regions of the north. Tea tasters praise the clarity and fragrance of the tea grown at higher elevation but it also makes for a challenging crop in practice. All the accompanying technologies of tea production need to be built and run locally, and everything costs more at higher elevation. Much like the concepts of terroir that control the appellation of certain wines and cheeses, the resulting flavour of tea is recognised to be more than just the sum of the plant and its human technologies of production. The environmental factors such as soil composition, irrigation pathways, and climate certainly influence the plant but are not considered the only influence. The human choices and technologies have a significant, albeit elsewhere replicable effect.
After harvest, Nilgiri tea is separated into different groups based on the quality of the leaf. The smallest leaves that are closest to the bud are processed by sun-drying and handled with care to produce the Orange Pekoe (OP) grade tea that yields a light yellow steep, no hints of bitterness, and a clean finish. The broken leaves are also considered high quality, yield a slightly darker brew and are sold as Broken Orange Pekoe (BOP). However, most of the tea produced in the Nilgiri occurs via a system known as Crush, Tear, Curl (CTC) in which the leaves are passed through industrial rollers into small, hard pellets, which are sold loose or packed into tea bags. This is the tea that makes chai for it needs to be boiled with water in order to break open the pellet structure. An OP will never brew into a strong, thick, black tea and thus will never respond well to inclusion of milk. While Nilgiri tea amounts to less than 10% of the national production, unlike the other premium varieties, most of it stays in India as CTC tea for local consumption.
Brewing Nilgiri Tea
At my parent’s place in rural Kerala, we always have both CTC and OP tea. Like most eccentric behaviours learned from the home, I didn’t notice that we barely ever drink tea with milk until I started making tea when guests came to visit.
Boiling the CTC with milk, water and spices to the right strength, and then adding sugar based on the preference of the drinker multiplies the possibilities for things to go wrong in chai preparation. OP brewing is far simpler:
Step 1: Boil water in kettle.
Step 2: Pour some hot water into the tea pot, let it sit for 30 seconds and then pour the water out of the spout — I’m told this is an oft forgotten by crucial step.
Step 3: Measure the tea leaves ( ½ teaspoon per cup) and throw into pre-heated pot, pour in boiled water, close pot , go for a short walk.
Step 4: Remember that you had tea steeping and hurry back to strain out the tea into cups that have been pre-heating à la Step 2.
The facility of making milk-less tea doesn’t account for why we don’t drink chai in my family. In fact, chai seems like the more reasonable option considering that we rear milk-producing cows. I think it was a combination of my parents yoga practice and my mother’s lactose intolerance that led to this particular method and choice of tea to take root. I also think there is a deep historical reason why we drink tea specifically from the Nilgiri region. Why is my family inextricably linked to the area? Is it the proximity, our colonial legacy, or does the connection go further? To understand this better it is helpful to reflect on the other institutions that come from the Nilgiri hills. It was not the unique flora, curious tribes, or the possibility of growing tea that first attracted the British to the Nilgiri, but the elevation and its promise of cool temperatures throughout the year. For representatives of the Madras Presidency, the Nilgiri represented the possibility of staying local while escaping the stultifying heat of the plains. By 1827, Ootacamund, or Ooty as it is colloquially called, the biggest town in the Nilgiri, became the official sanatorium and the summer capital of the Presidency. The completion of the railway line in 1899 meant that now government representatives could escape to the hills in just a few hours.
In his book The Magic Mountains, Dane Kennedy writes that the “Anglican spires, quaint Tudor-style cottages, and Victorian flower gardens lovingly evoked a distant homeland, giving hill stations a distinct British identity in the midst of a foreign environment.” While tea was introduced in the region because of its semblance to northern tea producing regions of Darjeeling and Assam, the resemblance of the misty green hills to their faraway homes in the British Isles prompted the building of schools here to educate the children and orphans of British soldiers, traders, and government officials. One such set of schools were the Lawrence Military Asylums started in four hill stations across colonial India; Sanawar in present day Himachal Pradesh (1847); Mount Abu in present day Rajasthan (1856); Lovedale near Ooty in present day Tamil Nadu(1858); and Ghora Gali in present day Punjab Province of Pakistan(1860). According to the founder, a Major General Sir Henry Montgomery Lawrence, the schools were meant to provide a space for white (primarily) and Anglo-Indian (secondarily and only if space permitted) children to “obtain the benefits of a bracing climate, a healthy moral atmosphere, and a plain, useful, and above all religious education, adapted to fit them for employment suited to their position in life.” Lawrence believed that these schools would shield the young people from the “debilitating effects of the tropical climate” of the plains and predominant areas of colonial India. Sir Henry died fighting to protect the city of Lucknow during, what we call in India, the First War of Independence of 1857. After Indian independence was won in 1947, the schools were handed over to the authorities in the newly formed government of India and the name of the one in south India changed to The Lawrence School, Lovedale. While the name has changed, many of the military traditions such as the Trooping the Colour and Beating Retreat continue notwithstanding the switch of flag from Union Jack to Tricolour.
When my father joined the school in 1950, the student body was evenly mixed between Indians, British, and Anglo-Indians. Though the last of his four brothers graduated in 1969, his younger cousins, and the next generation have carried the mantle of representing our family in the school colours. My brothers graduated in the early nineties and I was the first of our family to graduate in the new millennium (’01). My eldest brother’s daughter has already been in the school for two years. Recently, my family went up to school to commemorate the 158th Founder’s Day. My father’s class celebrated their 55th reunion, my brother his 25th reunion, and my classmates were there for our 15th. Needless to say, my family has a close and consistent tie to the school and by association, the Nilgiris. The two-day celebration of Founder’s Day draws alumni back to the school in such numbers that this year there were more of them than students. From school I remember camping trips to tea estates, some owned by classmates, to learn about the processes of tea production. Maybe this is why we drink Nilgiri tea at home. It draws us to our childhood home: the place where we made our first friends, where we broke the rules and got away with it, and where we had our first bittersweet taste of heartbreak. In our predilection for Nilgiri Tea lies a trace of the legacy of colonial history, which has had the unintended consequence of uniting my family in taste and routine. My family’s terroir is Nilgiri. We were introduced as slightly foreign transplants and the environmental influences that shaped us were steeped in the cultures and climates of those hills.
(Xan Chacko is a PhD candidate in UC Davis’s Graduate Group Cultural Studies with designated emphases in Feminist Research & Theory, and Science & Technology Studies. Xan is interested in the movement of plants during colonial and post-colonial science. Xan is a recipient of the National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant in Science, Technology, and Society)