Tea Stall Along the Ganges River

When I arrived at field partner BJS on the first day of my fellowship, I was warmly greeted by staff, then swiftly escorted into the CEO’s office. The first order of business? Tea. “How would you like your tea, madam? Black or with milk?” “Um, with milk, please. Thank you!” It arrived in a beautiful white china teacup decorated in gold. A special guest cup, to be sure. There I sat with a few staff members as we got to know each other over tea. I felt so proper and sophisticated, quickly turning my back on the trusty mug of joe that got me through many years of working in Los Angeles. I had certainly drunk tea at home and had actually accumulated quite a collection, but this was different. The ceremony was as sweet as the tea itself (and Indians aren’t light handed with the sugar!). One of the jobs of the office assistant is to prepare tea for staff and guests. At BJS, that person is Arindam.

Arindam Making Tea

So each day begins with a tea offering. I usually take it with milk, but sometimes I throw him off and ask for lal cha (black tea). Lal actually means “red”, but since westerners refer to tea without milk as black tea, you’ve got your translation. Milk tea is dudh cha, which literally translates to dudh (milk) cha (tea). 

Dudh Cha in Pretty China Cup

Indians always offer guests a cup of tea, whether at work or home. On my second day, a bank representative came to the BJS office for a meeting, and she got the pretty china cup! The rest of us were all offered tea as well, and we drank together. I gave a presentation a few days later, and as everyone gathered, tea was passed around. I doubt a business deal is ever made without its presence.
Consumption of tea in India can be traced back to about 700 BC, but it wasn’t commercially produced until the arrival of the British East India Company in the early 1800s. India is one of the largest tea producers in the world, along with Sri Lanka, China and (surprisingly) Kenya. Darjeeling and Assam are the largest tea regions in the country, both in the north. 
Unlike the steeping method used in the Western world, Indian tea is typically boiled. Loose tea leaves swirl in a pot of water as it's heated. If making milk tea, which is most commonly drunk, milk and sugar are added to the pot and returned to a boil before being strained into cups. Sometimes ginger and/or cardamom are added to produce masala chai, a wonderfully rich and subtly spicy concoction that is WORLDS away from the sickly sweet dredge that comes out of a paper carton and mixed with milk to produce “chai lattes” in some ubiquitous coffee houses. But no judgment wink Here, tea stalls can be found on nearly every street corner. The cha wallah mans the cart and pours his infectious brew into a paper cup, plastic cup or matir bhar, literally translated as “mud cup”. The latter is thin earthenware fired in a kiln, meant to be disposed of after using. How ingenious.

Various Tea Cups- Paper, Matir Bhar and Plastic 
On a recent road trip to one of the branch offices, we stopped for a tea break on the way up, and again on the way back. The journey was long- more than three hours each way- so the pit stops were welcomed. Both times I watched the cha wallah intently as he prepared our addictive brew, and took pleasure in each satisfying sip. 

Cha Wallah Preparing Tea

There are many ways to take tea in India, including a version with sugar, lemon and a dash of salt, but I prefer sweet and creamy milk tea or masala chai. There’s something regal, yet completely pedestrian about the tea culture here. From street-side stalls where it can be had for less than a dime, to corporate boardrooms, it’s a unifier among Indians. And it makes me feel right at home. 

Enjoying Tea at My Desk!

BJS Colleague, Uttama, With Dudh Cha

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Tea plants are native to East and South Asia, and probably originated around the meeting points of the lands of northeast India, north Burma and southwest China. Statistical cluster analysis, chromosome number, easy hybridization, and various types of intermediate hybrids and spontaneous polyploids indicate that there is likely a single place of origin for Camellia sinensis, an area including the northern part of Burma, and Yunnan and Sichuan provinces of China.Tea drinking likely began during the Shang Dynasty, when it was used for medicinal purposes. It is believed that, soon after, "for the first time, people began to boil tea leaves for consumption into a concentrated liquid without the addition of other leaves or herbs, thereby using tea as a bitter yet stimulating drink, rather than as a medicinal concoction." Tea weighing station north of Batumi, Russian Empire before 1915.Although there are tales of tea's first use as a beverage, no one is sure of its exact origins. A Chinese inventor was the first person to invent a tea shredder. The first recorded drinking of tea is in China, with the earliest records of tea consumption dating to the 10th century BC. Another early credible record of tea drinking dates to the 3rd century AD, in a medical text by Hua T'o, who stated that "to drink bitter t'u constantly makes one think better." Another early reference to tea is found in a letter written by the Qin Dynasty general Liu Kun. A Chinese legend attributes the invention of tea to Shennong in 2737 BC. It was already a common drink during the Qin Dynasty (third century BC) and became widely popular during the Tang Dynasty, when it was spread to Korea, Japan and Vietnam. In India it has been drunk for medicinal purposes for a long but uncertain period, but apart from the Himalayan region seems not to have been used as a beverage until the British introduced Chinese tea there. Tea was first introduced to Portuguese priests and merchants in China during the 16th century, at which time it was termed chá. In 1750, tea experts travelled from China to the Azores, and planted tea, along with jasmine and mallow, to give it aroma and distinction. Both green and black tea continue to grow on the islands, which are the main suppliers to continental Portugal. Catherine of Braganza, wife of King Charles II of England, took the tea habit to Great Britain around 1660, but tea was not widely consumed in Britain until the 18th century, and remained expensive until the latter part of that period. In Britain and Ireland, tea had become an everyday beverage for all levels of society by the late 19th century, but at first it was consumed as a luxury item on special occasions, such as religious festivals, wakes, and domestic work gatherings such as quiltings. The price in Europe fell steadily during the 19th century, especially after Indian tea began to arrive in large quantities. The first European to successfully transplant tea to the Himalayas, Robert Fortune, was sent by the East India Company on a mission to China in 1848 to bring the tea plant back to Great Britain. He began his journey in high secrecy as his mission occurred in the lull between the two Anglo-Chinese Wars or opium wars, and westerners were not in high regard at the time. Tea was first introduced into India by the British, in an attempt to break the Chinese monopoly on tea. The British brought Chinese seeds into Northeast India but the plants failed; they later discovered that a different variety of tea was endemic to Assam and the Northeast region of India and that it was used by local tribes. Using the Chinese planting and cultivation techniques, the British launched a tea industry by offering land in Assam to any European who agreed to cultivate tea for export. Tea was originally consumed only by anglicized Indians; it was not until the 1950s that tea grew widely popular in India through a successful advertising campaign by the India Tea Board.

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Shelley is a native Californian who graduated from California State University, Chico with a BA in Communications. After college she backpacked through Europe (as one tends to do) and got her first taste of international travel- her eyes had opened. Upon returning to the States, Shelley entered the production and post-production world, working on-set for independent feature films, followed by a gig as a video editor at a small ad agency. An itch to explore the world returned, so she spent a year teaching English in Japan, learning new business practices and etiquette (always use two hands when presenting a business card!). After Japan, she continued traveling through Southeast Asia where she was confronted with true poverty for the first time. It was an experience she never forgot, and it eventually inspired her first Kiva loan in 2010. Most recently Shelley managed digital marketing at IMAX, where she was responsible for the online promotion of both mainstream films and documentaries. The latter afforded her the pleasure of working with a number of non-profit organizations while overseeing the creation of websites and overall digital/social strategies. But it was while watching- not marketing- a few moving documentaries about the empowerment of women in developing countries that inspired Shelley to vacate her office and step into the field. She is thrilled to help open a new branch in India.