I am sipping a cup of light, smoky flavoured tea, and listening to Assam tea planter Amiyo Ningda talk about a time when the neat patches of tea shrubs and leafy vegetables outside his window looked very different. I try to imagine his ancestors, hundreds of years ago, mounted on elephants to pluck handfuls of leaves from tall tea trees growing wild. I picture the chief of the local Singpho tribe, Bisa Gam, inviting Major Robert Bruce of the East India Company to his bamboo hut back in 1823, and introducing him to tea plants in his backyard. This was how the British discovered tea in India and its commercial plantation began.
Over a cup of traditionally hand-processed tea in the village of Katatong in Upper Assam, everything I had learned during my upbringing in a former British tea garden a few hours away comes undone.
The Singphos, a tribal community residing in parts of Northeast India, Myanmar, and China, are believed to be among India’s first tea drinkers. To this day, they continue to process tea by first heating the leaves in a metal pan until they brown, and then sun-drying them for a few days. To make the more flavourful, smoked tea, the sun-dried leaves are tightly packed in bamboo tubes and smoked over a fire. After a week of storing these bamboos, the processed tea hardens to take the shape of the tube. It can then be preserved for up to 10 years, with small portions sliced off with a knife to brew a fresh cup of tea.
When processed and brewed correctly, a cup of Singpho tea, which is had without milk or sugar, is a lovely golden-orange colour. The leaves can be reused to brew three or four cups, the flavour getting better with each infusion.
According to Ningda, the tea’s organic production and traditional processing retains its medicinal value. The Singphos say a cup after every meal aids digestion, and believe it has kept the community relatively free from cancer and diabetes.
Families like Rajesh Singpho’s in Ingthem village, relish tea in other forms too. A popular version is pickled tea, made by mixing steamed leaves with spices, and allowing them to ferment. The pickle is served in a salad with onion and leafy vegetables. It’s similar to Burmese lahpet thoke, which was exchanged as a peace offering by the warring kingdoms of Burma and Siam centuries ago, and is a popular street food in Yangon. Singphos also use white tea flowers, pan fried and served with rice.
These traditional recipes and ways are slowly being forgotten. But sitting here, drinking my third cup of tea, I am grateful to the Singphos for their role in giving India its favourite brew.
Appeared in the February 2016 issue as “Singpho Tea Party”.
Katatong village is in the Tinsukia district of Assam, 92 km/3 hr east of Dibrugarh airport. Singpho Eco Lodge sells Singpho tea (₹120 for 100 gm) and organises demonstrations of the production process from Apr-Oct (98544-38896).