There’s a small but growing tribe of tea farmers who have been experimenting with tea-making. Earlier, these farmers would have sold the tea leaves to a factory; now they are innovating, learning new styles from Taiwanese tea makers and even reaching into the past to draw from tradition. This is especially true of Assam, which not only has a long history of tea but also some of the most flavourful tea in the world.
This week, I tried three indigenous teas from Assam: the khilang, dheki and hpa kha, all handmade, and available with select retailers. The khilang and hpa kha are often made from wild tea plants. These are teas that have been made here for ages; some pre-date the British.
The khilang goes back to the 1700s, and to perhaps the Moran community. Considered a medicinal plant, it was used as a therapeutic beverage for, among other things, reducing the pain from snakebites. It was only when the British arrived that people learnt that the leaves they used to make the khilang were, in fact, tea leaves. Till now, the khilang was being made for personal use. But green-tea drinkers will enjoy it; it’s less subtle but not bitter.
Dheki tea is made with the dheki, a pestle used to pound rice. It’s said that those who worked on large plantations would bring home some tea leaves, pound these and fashion their own teas. Eventually, they were banned from taking home tea leaves. It reminds me of the story of vangedi tea from Sri Lanka.
Today, dheki tea is seeing a rise in popularity as tea farmers reclaim it as a way of making tea. It looks like CTC tea, with even dark granules that brew a reddish liquor. Tea makers call it a handmade CTC tea. It’s well suited for chai but it has so much flavour that I think it’s best enjoyed plain.
The hpa kha comes from the Singpho community in Tinsukia district, whose falap is probably the best known among indigenous teas. The hpa kha is described as a loose-leaf bitter tea. It was apparently a substitute for unsafe water in these parts, the long dark leaves brewing a strong-flavoured black tea with just a touch of bitterness. Its name comes from the way children would ask for it: “Hpa Kha Hpalap (give me bitter tea).” It’s recommended as a hangover tea and while I didn’t have a chance to test that, I did enjoy it greatly as a mid-morning cup.
If you are in Assam, do keep an eye out for local vendors who may offer these teas. They are available at Oiirabot (Oiirabot.com), a tea retailer from Assam who says they spent 10 years researching and discovering the Assam handmade tea tradition they are now attempting to preserve. Just one more reason for us to try them.
Tea Nanny is a fortnightly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry. @AravindaAnanth1 on Twitter.