CHENNAI: When the skies open up during monsoon, social media posts on hot chai accompanied by a bowl of pakoda does not necessarily evoke any emotion for a coffee enthusiast. So, when I, a tea-totaller, got my hands on Pallavi Nigam Sahay’s A Sip in Time, all I looked forward to was the recipes she had presented to be paired with a certain blend of tea. Little did I know while flipping through the pages that I’d consider changing my religion — from one who worships coffee to one who is ready to fall for one cup of hot tea. Chatting with Pallavi, I realise I am not the first one to think of this conversion.
“My husband, Kunal, is a coffee person too, you know. His parents are ardent tea lovers, but they couldn’t convert him. But this research, all the talk and all the writing, and everything has made him a tea lover. So now, morning and evening (he has) coffee, and in between, he has his tea,” shares the tea sommelier and chef, before we delve into the specifics of her book.
Sip n’ snack
A Sip in Time is Pallavi’s attempt to introduce readers to India’s fine teas and the treats that go along with them. We may all be aware of the different variants from Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Darjeeling and Munnar. The book unravels the making, the sub-varieties and a little bit of history on tea.
I ask Pallavi to suggest a tea variety to induct someone into the world of tea. “Darjeeling second flush. It has a very subtle floral note. And it is not at all astringent or grassy like the Darjeeling first flush. Only tea devotees will love the bitterness that comes in the first flush or even the autumn flush too. But people who are just starting to get to know tea or get into the habit of drinking tea, I think they must start with the Darjeeling second flush; you just get soothed by it,” she elaborates.
Pallavi explains in the book that Darjeeling is the one city in the entire world where tea is cultivated throughout the year. The tea produced from February to April is the first flush, May-June is the second flush and October-November is the autumn flush.
Chai has always been part of Pallavi’s life. “When I was a child, my mom gave chai whenever we had a sore throat. She would add a little bit of salt and black pepper. That was the only good thing about falling ill,” she says. Then there was chai during late-night study sessions while chatting with parents and hangouts at chai tapris. But it was only when this girl from Madhya Pradesh got married into a Bihari household that was she introduced to black tea. “It was Darjeeling first flush and I loved it,” she shares.
But what was common in both these households was that the beverage was always served with a snack. And not just biscuits or some savoury. A lot of thought and effort went into it.
Pallavi’s first book The Bhojpuri Kitchen was an ode to her marital home. With the belief that a city’s culture comes through in its cuisine, Pallavi set out to learn all about Bihari food from the family members. “I was noticing little cultural differences, especially the habits and the way the food was prepared. So whenever I went to Bihar, and whatever I ate, I asked for the recipe and I asked for the process. They showed it to me and we also talked a lot about food. My diary was full of it. My husband saw the diary and suggested we convert it into a book. The same thing happened with tea.”
A Sip in Time, Pallavi says, has the best of both worlds. Of chai and tea, which have become a big part of her life. And not a day goes by without sipping on at least seven cups of tea. “Whenever my mother-in-law throws parties, she devises a menu. She also likes to bake a lot. She bakes something that will go well with tea, and I also did the same. So I had an idea of what snack went well with what kind of tea, “ she shares.
Research in an estate
But bringing out a book on tea required a good amount of research and Pallavi got to spend time at the Darjeeling hills, a haven for tea connoisseurs. Soon, she also learned about the tea sommelier course, which she pursued and got a better understanding of the leaves, the process and its history. “So it became more of a travelogue and a recipe book,” she adds.
With the book, Pallavi wishes to give her readers the best tea time, either if they are drinking alone or having a party or a picnic. “They can have the best menu with the best tea with the best snacks and they can make the best of their tea time. Making some of these recipes can be relaxing too. Like bread recipes; they can help you unwind. There is a cinnamon bun recipe which is like meditation. It keeps your mind busy in a very unchallenging way. And that’s the best kind of unwinding. And if you want to read the travelogue, you will discover about these places, the tea makers and be proud of your tea estates’ heritage,” she signs off.