Many gourmet food stores (like Modern Bazaar) now have a mini ‘herbarium’ stocking varietals of black, green and white loose tea leaves. An absolute paradise for an increasing number of modern- day tea connoisseurs well versed in tea-drinking habits, flush (four plucking seasons), tea terroir (provenance and its effect on the tea’s taste), and overall health benefits. For instance, they wouldn’t be caught dead with a tea sachet, fully aware that these tiny bags are stuffed with broken tea leaves (which reduces their scent and essential oils) and a sneaky dose of fanning (leftovers from high-grade tea leaves); the result post steeping: more tannins, less flavour, and a bitter aftertaste.
Artificial flavours and syrups like peach, lemon and strawberry are a big no. After trying out soy, almond or even hemp milk alternatives, they’ve turned converts for sugarless no-milk teas, to devour the multiple health benefits: antioxidants, flavonoids, less caffeine than coffee, reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases, and anti-ageing properties. And for them, arriving at their favourite tea/s, was just as it is with discovering your favourite cheese, chocolate or wine – either a happy accident, borne from many tasting sessions or an acquired taste. But these are just the surface- level gaugings.
The tea world is constantly astir with experiments in ‘tea blending’, tea-and-food-and mood pairings, diet and detox teas, hot and iced teas, tea mocktails and cocktails, all done by tempering flavours to achieve balance (for example, a cinnamon stick keeps the highly sweet Tiramisu tea in check) with the dexterity of a mixologist. So where does a novice to tea start? It boils down to ‘knowing thyself ’ and having fun in exploring similar tastes in no milk varieties, says Harshal Bhavsar, Director, Food&Beverage, Taj Palace, New Delhi.
He was instrumental in conceptualising the Tea Lounge in the lobby that serves Indian and international teas and snacks. Since winter is upon us, Bhavsar sticks talking about hot teas. “If you like masala chai,” he says, “opt for a fennel tea, ginger tea, or even a turmeric tea, which works like an aperitif, digestive and has lots health benefits. If you’re inclined to light aromatic green teas, try mango, rose, hibiscus, fruit bliss… Black tea lovers always want a ‘kick’ so strong blends like fennel and cardamon or Assam and Darjeeling work,” Bhavsar says, pointing how India is home to over 100 tea varieties (not counting the flushes), with over 25 variants to the masala chai itself (Kashmiri pink tea – steaming concoction of milk, berry flowers, tea and chopped pistachio).
Also, that tea estates are being brought over by newer owners. Bhavsar, a self-confessed excoffee lover, who’d daily down 10-12 cups of coffee, is now solely devoted to tea. “The first tea I moved to when I made the switch, and this will help a lot of people, is the dark or nomilk Assam and Darjeeling tea. It has a strong aroma, not as strong as coffee but good enough.” Moreover, different varietals complement different times of the day. “You can have an English breakfast tea when you wake up. A light jasmine tea works well for lunch, especially with Chinese food.
Around 4 o’clock, when you crave a coffee for slight kick, try an Earl Grey. Its citrusy notes will actually shake up your body. A light white tea in the evening. And chamomile before sleeping because it’s soothing and relaxing.” While tea blending is an utterly confusing terrain, Bhavsar points to how it is a succour when you’re bored flogging the same flavour. “Even with masala chai, you might want it differently every day. One day you’ll add cinnamon, next day cardamon, few days later ginger. Tea can be blended with anything.
To start off, you can add whatever spices you have at home to the tea leaves… turmeric, cinnamon, lemon, clove, nutmeg, ajwain...” Any blending experiments to avoid? “Don’t add citrus fruits as the milk can curdle and give you indigestion. Also, use dried/dehydrated fruits as their flavours are retained, not raisins though, because they’d float. If at all, you want a fruity flavour, boil the fruit separately and use that fruity concoction in the tea instead.
Avoid those artificial orange teas, which when stored over a period of time, give an off taste.” While buying loose tea leaves, pick the dried longer leaves over the fresh, younger ones, as these retain flavours. Ditto for floral and fruity teas. Till you find what tea you like... whether it’s the hipsterish bubblegum taste of the warm red Apple strudel or the Assam black tea that’s heavy with tannins and a lingering aftertaste or a white tea with less tannins and a short aftertaste... happy experimenting!