Thursday, 10 April 2014

FORTUNE COOKIE: The Long and Eventful Journey of Our Chaiwallahs

In the season of political chaiwallahs, a lavishly illustrated and meticulously researched book takes us back to the days of the pioneers who gave us our chai. This is my column, Fortune Cookie, which appeared in the Op-Ed page of Mail Today on April 10, 2014, Delhi's election day. 

By Sourish Bhattacharyya

THIS IS the season of the chaiwallah. Mani Shankar Aiyar may not consider the tea business to be good enough to produce a prime ministerial candidate, but India is the world's second largest producer of tea, rolling out 1.11 billion kilograms of tea. And we consume a fifth of the tea that the world produces.
Rekha Sarin and Rajan Kapoor's encyclopaedic
book, Chai: The Experience of Indian Tea (Niyogi
Books; Rs 1,995), is a riveting read studded with
information. Enjoy it with a cup of your favourite
chai! Image: Courtesy of Trustea.org
The Indian side of the tea story was waiting to be told with all the colour and the chutzpah associated with the industry, but the previous accounts of it, by corporate historian D.K. Taknet and tea auctioneer Prafull Goradia, weren't the most riveting reads. Chai: The Experience of Indian Tea (Niyogi Books; Rs 1,995), by freelance writer and floral decorator Rekha Sarin and businessman and award-winning photographer Rajan Kapoor, therefore, comes like a refreshing whiff of (what else?) a nicely brewed Darjeeling First Flush.
Brilliantly produced and lavishly illustrated, Chai travels back and forth in time, blending history with the present. It starts by taking readers on a pan-Indian journey, making us savour tea laced with peppercorns and sometimes nutmeg in Kerala, or the khade chammach ki chai (the tea is said to have so much sugar that the spoon can literally stand in the cup!) served at the Irani restaurants of Hyderabad, or the tea that accompanies a meal of aloo parantha and dal tadka with eggs at Kolkata's Russel Punjabi Dhaba, or the milk-laden expressions of Brooke Bond Super Dust that draw hundreds daily to Moosa Tea Stall at the old Fort St George in Chennai.
'India Runs on Chai', declares the tag line of Chai Point, the hugely successful tea delivery service conceived by Harvard Business School alumnus Amuleek Singh Bijral and mentored by his professor, Tarun Khanna. After reading Chai, you'll be struck by the irony of this fact, for the East India Company was initially most reluctant to recognise the fact that tea was growing in the wild in Assam and that the Singhpo tribe had been drinking tea forever, a discovery made by Robert Bruce, a Scottish tradesman, on a tip-off from a local nobleman, Maniram Dutta Barua, in 1823.
The Company was happy earning heaps of silver out of Chinese tea, which it exchanged with opium grown in India. Britain fought two Opium Wars (1839-42; 1856-58) to protect this nefarious trade, but then, China started growing opium and soon became the world's largest producer of the poppy. In all this, the gainer was Indian tea, because first the Company and then the British Raj saw in it the means to counter the Chinese tea monopoly.
The tautly edited book glides through history to bring to life the drama behind the rise of chai: the pioneering efforts of Charles Alexander Bruce, Robert's brother, to propagate Assamese tea; the formation of the Assam Company, the world's first tea enterprise, with Rabindranath Tagore's grandfather, 'Prince' Dwarkanath, on the board of directors, in 1839; the hanging of Maniram in 1858 for daring to plant tea in competition to the British entrepreneurs; Scottish botanist Robert Fortune's successful attempts to sneak into out-of-bounds Chinese gardens and filch 20,000 plants of the best black and green tea for Darjeeling; and the hazardous journeys and back-breaking hardships faced by the early planters: they had to store rice, for instance, in their socks and hang them on the walls to prevent their food from being eaten away by rats.
No challenge, though, was big enough to prevent tea from becoming the massive enterprise it eventually turned out to be. Rosheswar Barua became the first Indian to establish and own six tea estates. Marwaris such as Senai Ram Lohia, travelling on camel back and on foot from Ratangarh in Rajasthan, reached Dibrugarh in Assam as far back as 1861, because they were told "there's gold growing there". These are the chaiwallahs who created the national enterprise. From Dibrugarh to the Nilgiris and Munnar, to the foot of the Dhaulagiri in Kangra, this is one flavourful ride you must take with a cup of chai by your side.

GET YOUR BRAGGING RIGHTS FROM SINGLE MALTS
IF YOU haven't hosted a home appreciation session dedicated to single malts, you cannot claim your bragging rights. This is the new fad going viral around the country, as single malts gain new followers in Tier II and III cities, such as Chandigarh, Ludhiana, Pune and Kochi.
Home appreciation sessions dedicated to single
malts are the new style statements, according
to Rajiv Bhatia, Director, William Grant & Sons,
 the makers of Glenfiddich 12YO

The most prominent Indian face of Scotland's single malts industry, and a member of the exclusive club of Keepers of the Quaiche, Rajiv Bhatia, shared this information with me on the day he was going to give away BestCollegeArt.com's Best Emerging Artist Award 2014 to Chetnaa Verma. Being a Delhiite and having just set up the India office of William Grant & Sons, makers of the best-selling single malt, Glendfiddich 12YO, Bhatia seemed to be prepared with an answer when I asked why international alcoholic beverage heavy hitters, from Diageo and Pernod Ricard to Moet Hennessy, were setting up Indian operations.
"The market is sufficiently large for companies like ours to invest in India," he said, pinpointing three reasons for the consumption of single malts becoming the new middle-class statement of upward mobility: growing international travel; success of the arrival lounge duty-free stores (buoyed by the response, William Grant India has unveiled its exclusive Cask Collection at T3); and the proliferation of upscale retail outlets that stock premium liquor brands. Back in 1907, Charles Gordon, a founder of William Grant & Sons, travelled across India to sell Scotch to the maharajas. His successors have cast their net wider.

DELHI ROMANCES THE DIM SUM, AND HOW!
WHEN the Yo! China promoters -- Ashish Kapur, Ajay Saini and Joydeep Singh -- launched dimsumbros not long ago, I remember asking them whether a single-specialty restaurant could do well in a market that swore by 'multi-cuisine'. Kapur, the most articulate of the three, reasoned that the phenomenal popularity of the dim sum served at Yo! China outlets gave them the confidence to launch dimsumbros at Ambience Mall, Gurgaon.
Ironically, the counter on the Yo! China website that used to track dim sum consumption at the outlets stopped working after reaching the 10,000,007 (ten million and seven) mark many months ago, but dimsumbros, despite its failed expansion to New Friends Colony, has struck a responsive chord with Delhi/NCR's diners with such winners as the Almond Prawns with Wasabi Mayo, Delectable Salmon Roll and Scallop Sui Mai with 'Caviar' (more likely, flying fish roe!).
Dimsumbros has democratised the dim sum lunches that have become an institution at Taipan, The Oberoi's rooftop Chinese restaurant, and at Royal China, Nehru Place, where regulars order dim sum platters without even looking at the menu. Set'Z at DLF Emporio, meanwhile, can claim credit for creating a loyal market for cheung fun, the light yet flavourful rice noodle rolls. And soon, yet another dim sum-only restaurant, Dim Cha, will lift its shutter for what its 20-something owner expects to be a surge of humanity at the N-Block Market, Greater Kailash-I.
Delhiites seem to love their dim sum, which is exactly why Dharmesh Karmokar, a Mumbai-based food consultant and serial restaurateur, has launched a dim sum menu with 100 offerings at Nom Nom, the sprawling Pan Asian restaurant promoted by B.K. Modi at The Ashok. We not only have more choices than before, but restaurateurs like Karmokar now travel the extra mile to make sure they don't duplicate the momos that the cottage industry of roadside sellers hawks across Delhi. They have the right steamers and use the appropriate flour.
The menu at Nom Nom, which introduces squid, octopus, emu meat and even eggs stuffed with fruit to good effect, shows where the dim sum business is headed. Dim sum, without doubt, is this season's khao suey.