Wednesday, September 14, 2011

In-tea-lligence from India and China

As I write this, I'm sipping a Japanese bancha from a new mug, one emblazoned with the logo of the grad school where I'm now a master's student. I have a typically windowless, cinder-block office on campus in a typically weird, strangely designed university building, and I've already scoped out where the hot water taps are in the building so I can at least approximate a decent cup of tea as I slave away writing papers, conducting research and reading, reading, reading.

One of the many aspects of campus life I appreciate once more, after having been away as a student for nearly two decades, is the regular contact with people of different backgrounds and experience. In my graduate cohort are several students from India and China, for example — so, of course, we started talking tea.

Raj, a student I'm collaborating with this week, hails from India. She scoffed at the shop in Calcutta I've written about before — Dolly's, from which another friend of mine sends me tea whenever she visits. "That's where you go to show off, not to drink real tea," she said.

She recommended something I tried this weekend, too: a strong cup of Darjeeling with a bit of lemon, a pinch of sugar and a tiny bit of ... black salt. Fabulous, I have several colored salts given to me ages ago by a chef, and I always forget to use them. A big proponent of salty-sweet combos, I encourage this. Salt in tea is something everyone should try at least once, and this balance of sweet, salt (with the added clean smoky flavor of the charcoal-blended black salt) and lemon is as perfect as the world's greatest cocktail, the sidecar.

Another thing Raj said that I loved, as we discussed the ideal spice blend for chai: "Mostly cardamom, no cinnamon. Americans are obsessed with cinnamon. You put it on everything!"

Raj complained that India's tea businesses export all their good quality teas. Another student, Qian, from Beijing, said it's the opposite in China: they keep the good stuff in the country and export the crud.

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