Before I came to the US, I thought everyone in the world drank tea or in other words I was oblivious of the fact that not everyone in the world drank tea. Although still hard to believe, the truth dawned on me soon after my arrival.
Twenty years ago, when Owais and I had just started our life together, among other trifling matters that immigrants and newlyweds initially go through, one of the biggest problem I was having was the (im)perfect cup of tea! Not sure if it was the tea, water, weather, creamer – I could not get my chai to taste and smell like the one back home. After trying few brewing tricks, I went to our neighbor in the university housing and posed her with the question: “For some reason my tea is not giving me the taste it should – how do you make yours?”. “Tea?” (a foreign word clearly!). Later the discussion came to what and how tea is served. She couldn’t get her head wrapped around the pairing of tea with sweet and savory. I went on to explain the combination is probably established over hundreds of years and our palates are seasoned to it. Then as if something suddenly clicked and she said, “Oh just like we pair wine with cheese – it seems odd but both go together and taste awesome!! Right?” and I looked at her and said, “Well I wouldn’t know because I don’t drink wine?” and she said, “Hmmm, I have never met an adult who does not drink wine!”. In this moment of this cultural exploration I countered her with my secret that I have not met a person who does not drink tea!!
So y’all, this is tea for us – addiction, tradition, habit; a savoir faire beverage that holds well to any and all occasions. It wakes us up and calms us down. Among other varieties of tea (green tea/ qahwa, pink tea etc.) the most commonly consumed type in Pakistan and South East Asian region is black hot tea accompanied with milk and sugar. A rich aromatic drink which fares well on its own and accentuates the flavors of treats like traditional sweets like barfi, naan khatai, cookies, and savory items like chaat, dahi bhalay, samosas etc. Those of us living abroad pair and enjoy tea with local desserts.
The preparation of tea, although different from household to household like mini sub-cultures, follows certain rules when it comes to presentation for occasions or audience. For most in-house drinking, it is made with milk (sometimes sugar) added while brewing. For formal hosting entertained in drawing rooms (that would be living rooms in USA), it is considered very sophisticated to serve it “separate”, meaning milk and sugar on side with carefully timed steeped tea. The most famous form of the beverage consumed outside the homes is tea at dhaabas. Dhaabas are small tea shops or carts within cities, towns and on roadways when they may be referred to as truck hotels. The tea at dhaabas is a genre in itself. The privileged recipe distinct to these quaint joints is super strong and super sweet, brewed mostly in milk for long hours. Dhaabas enjoy immense importance among local community members like shopkeepers, laborers, handymen. They serve as a great hangout spot for students. The ones on the commercial cross-country roads are intended to give a kick for long routes ahead for truck drivers and general travelers. If you are with ladies, these dhaabas provide a royal service beyond “drive-through”. The chai wallah will communicate with male of the faraway parked car using hand gestures for “How many?” and bring the order in brimming, spilling cups on a dirty spotted platter. But these tea shops/ holes in the wall with all the lack of sophistication and formality are not intimidated in any way to have to change their ways. Even the posh class finds it fashionable to stop at the roadside tea carts to enjoy the provincial version of the drink in stained chipped cups on tea-spilt trays without getting offended by this lack of fine service.
The custom of tea follows us and becomes a necessary element of our lifestyle in the new cultures we live in. In a place like Dallas, groaning with multi-ethnic comestible offerings, tea is ceremoniously served after meals in almost all Pakistani/Indian restaurants. Many places have it complementary and some price it but it is always available to complete the sensory experience of a hearty meal! Nazia Khan from Dallas Halal Restaurants Review provided me with these beautiful pictures of tea that can be savored in restaurants around Metroplex.
Not just a beverage of the breakfast or afternoon, tea can be served anytime – it keeps us going during different hours of the day (and night!) From “just because” reasons to dinners, social gatherings, work places, universities, literary societies – tea is a must. It plays a very critical role in the sensitive matters of marriage proposals (when guests are honored enough to provide formal tea but not familiar enough to have dinner with!), for happy traditional ceremonies like weddings, religious holidays like Eid, and in somber times of funerals. A drink of friendship, companionship, hospitality, tête-à-tête and in cultures where relatives, friends, neighbors drop in without making appointments, it is prepared fresh and served right away – although sadly it appears the frequency of unannounced guests is changing to short-notice guests. For a guest, expected or unexpected, tea is the most essential part of the greeting. For planned parties, accouterments for tea are set aside ahead of time to accommodate the tea drinking at the end of the meal. Being the last item on the menu, it must be done perfectly because no matter how good was the food that hosts served, it is the taste of the tea that people leave with!
I love black tea like a lot of us from my background do. I have tried hard to like coffee but I could only fall in love with it in a half-hearted way. In the morning and evening, my best partner, other than my awesome guy is tea, brewing in the china teapot under tea cozy! Yes I still use tea cozy in home and my teacup has to have saucer. My husband uses mugs and the ones pictured above are fine bone Royal Alberts and give wonderful feel! Unless styrofoam cup is the only way to consume tea, I do not use these cups otherwise. Very frequently I take my pretty tea sets out. There is a certain taste specific to sipping tea from a fine bone china teacup. And that is when I crave sweet, and then savory … and well now you know how it goes!
Tea-brewing is an art!! A good cup of tea is always remembered and so is a bad one! The latter can jeopardize the meal or meeting experience. It is hard to like tea made by everyone. While a well- made sip of the beverage can do wonders, a poorly brewed cup may very well force you to judge the person handing you the cup or running the household! No really, it can…no kidding here. So if you are looking for the right kind of black tea, here are my tried-and-tested favorite brands: Tapal Danedar loose tea or their teabags which are equally good, Lipton Yellow Label Orange Pekoe tea, Brooke Bond are all Pakistani and Indian favorites and been around for very long. Some of the British black tea variety that I have tried since I came to the US is Tetly, and PG-Tips. I also love Tetley Cardamom, especially for evening sipping or late night tea-time with Owais. Recently I ordered Ahmed tea and I have to say it had a good strong taste and I keep it for once-a-week special tea time. I also like Earl Grey by Stash a lot. If I were not too loyal to my traditional Pakistani chai, I would make it my daily drink!
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So…how do you take your tea?