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Raising a cup to a wild tea party in Arunachal

There’s a centuries-old tea-crafting method with leaves plucked from ancient trees—not bushes

A village in the foothills of the Himalayas, Arunachal Pradesh. (iStockPhoto)
A village in the foothills of the Himalayas, Arunachal Pradesh. (iStockPhoto)

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My journey had begun in Pasighat, the oldest town in the Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh, home to one of the most celebrated tea estates in India, the Donyi Polo Tea Estate. They were recently in the news for their golden needle tea, which was sold at the record price for 75,000 per kilo, making it the most expensive white tea ever sold at any auction in India.

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Before making my way towards Mirrem in east Arunachal, I had made a stop at Donyi Polo for a day, lured by its record-breaking teas. My day there was mostly spent in its tasting room, sampling its wide variety of teas and touring the tea estate.

Next morning, as my parents and I (they had joined me in Arunachal Pradesh) headed towards Mirrem village, we were joined by Nalanda, the headman of the village. We were soon en route to Mirrem village to experience their centuries-old artisanal tea-crafting methods and to witness the ancient tea trees in the jungle nearby. After lunch, we gathered in Nalanda’s courtyard to watch a demonstration of their ingenious tea-making methods. First, two women washed their feet with herbal soap made from shikakai. Then, they made piles of fresh tea leaves on top of a bamboo mat, stood on top of the piles and started moving their feet in half-circles. They were rolling the tea leaves under their feet to make the juices come out and develop caffeine without damaging the tea leaves. ‘We pluck our leaves from tea trees in the jungle, so they are broader and more mature as compared to the delicate small ones plucked from tea bushes on estates. Hence, they need a harder roll and that’s why we roll them under our feet,’ explained Nalanda. ‘But it is not easy to get the perfect roll which yields the desired flavour and colour. So, in order to ensure a balanced roll, we look for a woman of the right weight as someone who is overweight will roll the leaves too hard and an underweight woman won’t roll them enough,’ he added.

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I was still admiring their simple and intelligent approach towards rolling when Oshi, Nalanda’s wife, picked up a leaf and pointed to a red vein on the back of the leaf. ‘Most of the flavour of the tea comes from this vein, and while plucking, we ensure we select the ones with this red vein.’ I had a great urge to see these old tea trees myself and requested them to take me to the jungle. The next morning, my father and I met Nalanda, Oshi and a few other tea artists from the village outside their home, and we trekked along a three-hour trail that led to huge, ancient tea trees. After seeing the neatly arranged, trimmed tea bushes in various tea estates, it was quite a surprise to see Kadu, one of the tea artists in our group, having to climb the tree to pluck the leaves. These trees were at least 25 feet in height and 1.5 feet in width, and they were full of dark green, large, broad leaves with serrated edges. Fifteen minutes after getting to these tea trees, Boke, a local tea artist, had filled a bamboo mug with tea for me. A light herbal aroma reached my nostrils, and we raised a toast to our wild tea party.

A Sip In Time
A Sip In Time

Excerpted with permission from A Sip In Time: India’s Finest Teas And Tea-Time Treats by Pallavi Nigam Sahay, published by Hachette India.

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