I am a tea-lover. My day starts with a glass of hot tea, brewed by myself. It is not that my wife or others in the family do not know how to make good tea, but I prefer tea brewed by me. By my own assessment, nobody else can make tea that is as good as what I make. I got into the habit from my childhood in Kerala. Even though I have since been a resident of Chennai for long, I have not become a fan of filter kappi. Many of my compatriots start their day with black tea, but I prefer mine with sugar and milk. Tea is to be drunk from a porcelain cup or mug or, better, a glass tumbler. The steel dowrah set is only for coffee.
Keralites or other Indians do not have a monopoly over tea. Since the reputed discovery of a concoction of tea leaves by the Chinese in A.D. 3rd century as an invigorating beverage, it has spread virtually to all countries of the world. And different peoples have their own ways of brewing and enjoying tea.
Tea was introduced in India by the British, as they did in many other countries where they had a presence. The British themselves have elaborate rituals associated with tea and the word is used not only for the beverage but often also for an entire meal as in ‘high tea’ or ‘evening tea’. Other countries have their own conventions associated with tea. In the late 1950s, as a student in the United States I remember seeing the iconic movie, The Teahouse of the August Moon , where I learned about some of the cultural associations of tea in Japan.
Nearer home, I have visited Singapore and Malaysia in recent times. On a visit to the enchanting island of Penang, the tourist guide told me about teh tarik , which he translated as ‘pulled tea’. This was a light, insipid milky tea. I learned on further investigation that the ‘pulled’ in the name refers to the technique of pouring the tea into the cup, from high, so as to generate some froth. With some imagination it could appear as though the liquid is being pulled from the glass or cup to the mug at the higher level. I knew this technique very well from my childhood days in Kerala.
I shall come back to genuine ‘tea pulling’. In any food court or eatery in Singapore or Malaysia, you can order a teh tarik , and you will be served the aforementioned insipid tea.
Let me return to my home State, Kerala. Enter any way-side tea shop, the chayakkada as it is called, usually a humble structure with thatched roof and a wooden bench or two on the outside for the patrons. These are ubiquitous in Kerala. Inside, up front, the pride of place goes to two wood-fired brass or steel vessels, one to boil milk and one to brew tea.
When the liquids are bubbling, the tea-master transfers quantities of milk, tea dust and sugar into the water and allows a further brisk boil, the fire is lowered and the boiling liquid is ladled out using a steel mug with a handle. This is then filtered into another mug through a cloth pouch. The mug with the hot tea is taken high and poured in a thin stream into a glass so the liquid falls in a gravity-defying arc without a drop spilling out.
This is the great Kerala Tea Trick. A skilled tea-master can perform this blind-folded, while actively participating in the heated political discussions going on around him.
This trick was taken to Malaya in the colonial days by the Muslim migrants from the Malabar coast, who entered that country, via Penang, in large numbers in quest of jobs in the rubber plantations. The locals of Malaya, watching the performance in awe, called the drink teh tarik , or pulled tea. The name remains in Malaysia, Singapore and neighbouring countries. But if you want genuine ‘pulled tea’ today, you will get it only in the place of origin, Kerala.
There is even an apocryphal story in which a foreign tourist in Kerala, watching the tea-master’s performance with rapt attention, ordered a yard of the stuff.