Hot Tea Across India

By Rishad Saam Mehta

Does a cup of tea taste especially lovely just because it’s served in splendid surroundings? Rishad Saam Mehta certainly thinks so in ‘Hot Tea Across India’, a book that’s as much about his first love — road-trips — as it is about bracing hot cups of tea. And you can’t help but agree with him, particularly when he’s seated ‘on the little terrace outside the dhaba, where you can see mountains all round, soaring up to the heavens and capped with ice’ sipping ‘strong and spicy masala chai.’

Of course Mehta is probably luckier than you and me, as he seems to do this sort of thing often — one day he’s at that solitary dhaba at Chotta Dara, enroute to Leh; another day sees him admiring Sonamarg (Kashmir) ‘with its rolling green meadows, pine-forested gentle slopes merging into lofty white caps’ while tucking into a hearty ‘tea and breakfast’. But then, these are hard-earned cups of teas, because Mehta bikes across some of the country’s toughest roads (‘I’d been instantly humbled by the Manali-Leh road: it demands fear and respect and doesn’t give you very many second chances’), busses his way around rural Himachal Pradesh (where the word ‘luxury’ is used very loosely indeed), and drives an Alto on treacherously frozen mountain-passes, where the howling wind and ice-caked roads made the car dance ‘the sideways salsa.’

It works because

Mehta’s passion for travel is quite infectious, his enthusiasm very real, and some of his adventures are amusingly larger than life. Moreover, despite having ‘a schedule to keep, pictures to take and paradise to explore’ he manages to take you on several interesting journey, all of which are cleverly held together with a handful of tealeaves, a pinch of spices and a splash of (preferably processed) milk. Told with a generous lashing of humour (some of it mildly scatological) and a thorough knowledge of the territory (‘from late May to early September, the thump of the Bullet’s single cylinder engine is the very soundtrack of Manali’) the journeys wind their way down from the mighty Himalayas to the south of the Vindhyas. And just like the topography (from ‘Chandra Tal, the moon lake which sits tranquil and blue, nestled like a robin’s egg amidst high mountains’, to the hot, dusty plains of Karnataka) the tea too changes character — it’s laced with saffron in Kashmir and steeped with spices in Kerala. And while it’s a bit presumptuous to tell if the book will inspire you to simply pack your bags and bog rolls and set out on a Bullet, it will at least ensure you Google up ‘how to brew Kashmiri tea’. And that is as good a place as any to start.

And this one stays with you — tea with an old Pathan shepherd in Kashmir

‘He then covered the vessel and let it simmer for about ten minutes before pouring it out in a glass, adding a dollop of honey (again from the bag, which I was quite seriously beginning to consider enchanted) and handing it over to me. It was delicious. The aroma of saffron mixed with that of wood smoke and pine made it a delicious brew infused with unique flavour.’

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Aparna KarthikeyanJune 28, 2012