How far would you go for that perfect cup of tea?
If this country was a car, tea would be its fuel. Indians don’t think much of skipping breakfast, but take away their morning cup of tea and you’ll have pharmacies running out of Disprins. In this Chai crazy nation of ours, God’s own country presents a strong case for being the most in love with this milky, sweet concoction. From having the highest tea plantations in the world in Kolukkumalai, to shops in Kochi selling 14 different varieties of it, Kerala sure knows how to tickle a tea-lover’s pleasure points. Every street worth its name in Kochi has a chayakkada (tea parlour) where you’ll find your average Malayali discussing everything from Mohanlal to Mohiniyattam over a hot cup of Kerala-style tea. It was here in one of these chayakkadas on Rajaji Road, where I first encountered meter-chai and fell in love.
That moment when…
A skilful way of simultaneously mixing the ingredients and cooling the beverage, the making of a meter-chai is precision art. The chaiwalla (always as nonchalant as Clint Eastwood in a shoot-out) extends his arms at just the right pace while pouring tea from one cup to another, making sure that not even a single drop is lost to spillage. He stops momentarily when the distance between the two cups becomes exactly one meter and then repeats the process. The most amazing part of this entire exercise is that for a split second when the distance between the containers becomes one meter, all of the beverage lies suspended in the air with nothing in the two vessels. The only leaking fluid is the audience’s open mouth. The resultant tea is a perfect blend of ingredients and is topped off by a head of froth that is a distinct trademark of this technique.
The perfect cuppa
On chatting with the practitioners of this art at the chayakkada, I was advised by one of them to try the meter-chai at Parambikulam Tiger Reserve, which is a wildlife sanctuary in the Palakkad district of Kerala. He told me that his father had taken him there once when he was in his teens and it remains his first and best meter-chai experience. For a chaiwalla in Kochi, a town renowned for its meter-chai, to consider another chaiwalla’s tea in the middle of a tiger reserve five hours away, as the best in the business was rather rare. The tea-fanatic in me was intrigued.
Which brings me to the question - how far should one go for a cup of tea? A logical answer would have nipped the story in the bud. But defying logic, my friends and I decided to verify the chaiwallah’s claims and drove to the ecological reserve the same weekend. An excursion from the claustrophobic confines of the city was in order anyway, and we found the perfect excuse in a promised frothy cup of chai.
Parambikulam wildlife sanctuary got its tiger reserve status in 2010 and before that it had been famous for housing a tree that got an award from the government. Yes, you read that right – the government awarded a tree. But then again the Kannimara Teak is the oldest living teak tree on the planet with an estimated age of 450 years. Its called the Virgin tree by the tribals here because apparently it started bleeding when somebody tried to cut it down. And the award is called ‘Mahavriksha Puraskar’(The Great Tree award). Go ahead, name the neem tree in your backyard.
We reached the sanctuary sometime in the afternoon. The drive to the reserve had exhausted all of us and having a cup of tea had gone from being an enthusiast’s pursuit to an absolute need. The tea-shop is not very far from the entrance of the reserve and we wasted no time in ordering three cups of the tea that we had travelled so far for. The old man who ran the shop obliged by putting up a proper show of his metre-chai skills. It was once we had had the first sip of tea, which felt as sweet as nectar and as frothy as a Guinness, that we finally recovered our voices enough to speak to the tea master. Pavithrettan, now in his 80s, has been running this shop for as long as he can remember. Apparently we were not the first to photograph him. He showed me a framed picture of him pouring out a cup, kept next to the kettle. He told us that the photograph had won an award and as a token of gratitude the photographer had sent him a framed copy. The government also awarded him a cash prize for his precise skills. No wonder the man said he can’t see himself doing anything other than making tea for the people who visit the forest.
After a few more rounds of the hot beverage, we bid adieu to Pavithrettan and drove back to our mid-forest accomodation (I’ll save the details of that for another story). I was more worried about how the tea was going to react in my stomach. Well, for all of you thinking of me as an exhibit-A snob, the fear of not trusting the tea at a new place is a genuine phobia and it’s called Tepidophobia. Don’t believe me? Look it up.
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By Avijit Pathak
Cover photo credit: irishholidays.com