A tea house is a tea house even if you call it a Salon de The, a `Chaykhana’, an `Ochaya’ , a `Teehaus’ or a `Chalou’. The point is that tea remains a great unifier, an all consuming pastime for almost anyone, anywhere across the globe.
After the errant tea leaf fell into the Emperor Shen Nong’s cup of boiling water over 5000 years ago in ancient China, it travelled to Japan (around AD 727) where the first Tea House is said to have been set up in 1584 by one Sen-nio-Rikyu.It thereafter made its way around the world, arriving in Europe around the 16th century and finally coming to the notice of British India in the early 19th century when Major Robert Bruce encountered the magical leaf around 1823 at a meeting with the local Singpho King in Assam. Legend has it that the identity of the mysterious medicinal drink that the Assamese consumed fairly regularly and had offered him, remained hidden till 1834 when it was confirmed to be tea after all. Assam Tea took the world by storm.
But another story gives the origin of tea consumption in India quite another twist altogether. It tells us that around 2000 years ago, a tired Buddhist monk vowed to spend seven sleepless years ruminating over the teachings of the Buddha. In year five, he wavered. To avoid falling asleep he chewed the leaves of a nearby bush. The leaves rejuvenated him and kept him going till the remaining years were done! But the idea of chewing tea bushes does not catch the fancy of the dour gentlemen in the famous tea houses of Bangalore. They would prefer to drink it.
The Taj Tea House on Mosque Road, Fraser Town is doing brisk business at 10 am as regulars drop in for a small glass of `Sulaimani ‘ and a gossip session or two. Suhail, the young man in charge, tells me that they open at 5 am, when people head here from the mosque nearby. They close at 12 pm. If you were born and raised in Bangalore before the coffee franchises took over, it is impossible to not have had a favourite late night tea haunt that was frequented to catch up with friends, discuss business, fix a broken heart or linger at with a date in a vain attempt to push her pumpkin time by half an hour or so.
The `Sulaimani ‘ (called ghava in Hyderabad) is a light tea made with a dash of lemon, sugar and a mint leaf or two, and sometimes with a hint of cardamom or cloves . A twin of the more elegant Iranian `Istekahn’, it is a soothing blend that can be drunk at all hours as a quick pick me up. It is great for digestion and lowers body temperature in summer.
A newspaper report I came across said “In his days Prophet Mohammed used to drink ‘ghava’ with dates and black pepper added to it. Later Arabs inherited the tradition of drinking ‘ghava’ but with some slight changes. They made use of sugar and called it Sulaimani”. It also added that this claim is unverified.
The best place to find a local tea house of your choice is busy, chaotic Shivajinagar. A walk around Russell Market square will throw up many – MM Tea House, BEST Tea House, Zameer Tea House, Ameena Tea House and so on where tea is housed in all its avatars. Hot lemon, cold lemon and doodh ki chai with conversation are the order of the day.The Broadway Hotel is also well known and the famous Savera serves ” bina doodh ki chai ” (aka black tea) as well. Nooruddin, the auto driver I meet here, sarcastically comments that all tea is `bina doodh ke‘ since most milk is adulterated with water anyway!
While Assam Tea can be bought loose at Farooq Bhai’s shop opposite the Broadway Road Police Station, the building it is in will soon be demolished. He will have to shift.” In any case business is slow ” his brother says. “The women in the area are buying loose tea from City Market and selling it out of their homes.”
The tea house is also a great leveller. Intellectuals occupy the same bench as daily wage workers and everyone bonds over a tea cup. There are the silent drinkers, the isolated sippers and those who feel obliged to share their lives with all and sundry. There are the nervous first timers, the relaxed regulars and the know it all `been there-done thats.’
But the tea house is the ultimate male bastion. A hothouse of gender discrimination. It is where men escape to find themselves and peruse the newspaper in peace, discuss the government animatedly or just avoid the wife. It is a pulsating community space with opportunities for valuable `me time’. It’s not that women are not allowed. They are welcome to order, drink and leave. The lotus eating here is only for men.
In a manner similar to the Japanese `cha-no-yu’ ceremony, the Bangalore tea house also has its sacrosanct rituals and standard accompaniments such as the Nankhatai’s, butter biscuits, coconut biscuits and samosas. A slice of `Dil Pasand ‘ (a Bangalorean treat – flaky pie stuffed with sweet shredded coconut) is also recommended. You can find it at Nazneen Liberty Bakery on Broadway Road. But if you happen to be drinking tea in Russell Square, then stop by at Luna Sweets for the piece de resistance, the `Ande ( Eggs ) ki Mithai ‘ a rich, creamy khoya based local speciality.
While you linger at Luna, take a look at the Paris Watch Works next door where Saeed the owner just might have time to tell you about his father Mr.Jaffer, the famous horologist and show you the rare vintage timepieces he gets to resurrect or sell at his shop.
Talking about lingering reminds me of some other lovely words – loiter, languish, languid. They indicate a casual disregard for time, schedules and manic rushing that resonates well with a cup of tea. Coffee can be consumed with indifference while on the run. But tea? Now that’s worth a ritual, a ceremony of sorts. Anyone at the tea house can tell you that.” Jaldi kya hai, ji ? Baitho, chai piyo, baatan karo. Ye train miss ho gayee toh dusri ayengee”.