It was just as I expected. And then it wasn’t.
My first stop in Assam was a village called Margherita, home to the Singpho tribe. I had visions of a European town, maybe a throwback to colonial India, caught in a time warp perhaps, where locals still used firewood, and cooked with what they grew.
Neither Wikipedia nor Google threw up any details except a story behind the name of the town. An Italian engineer, Chevalas Roberto Paganini, who supervised the construction of the rail section here, decided to name the town Margherita in honour of a 19th century Italian queen. Why he did that and why the name stayed is anybody’s guess.
The drive to Margherita was pleasant but uneventful. And then we entered the village. The first house was modestly sized but with a large garden lush with what looked like tea plants. And then we passed a second house with a similar garden and another. We had just arrived in a town where every household was growing tea in their backyard!
Our stop was the Singpho Eco Village and it was late evening when we reached. The main house was beautiful, built with bamboo and wood that was easily available in the area, and with tea gardens all around for as far as you could see. Our first cup of tea was served with a piece of jaggery on the side. It looked like any other black tea. Take a sip and a strong, unexpected flavour hits your palette. Green, smoky and like nothing I’d ever tasted before. With that we got our first lesson in the Singpho Bamboo tea or coin tea as they call it. We also met Rajesh Singpho, the unofficial leader of the Singphos. One of the first things he told us, with quiet pride, was that the Singpho tribe were the first Indians to find and drink tea as we know it today.
I was there with Ravi Kothari, Teabox’s procurement manager and Tridib Konwar, photographer from Assam. All of us were curious and had many questions. The significance of the Singphos in how the world discovered the assamica variant of tea is a story that’s not commonly known. One version is that Maniram Dewan, the first Indian commercial tea planter, who was from neighboring Jorhat, brought Robert Bruce of the East India Company to Margherita, and showed him these wild tea bushes, a hardy and strong plant so unlike its delicate Chinese cousin. On how the Singphos themselves discovered tea, Rajesh told us that popular folklore talks of two brothers who were hunting in the forest and were tired and hungry. They sat down to rest near a tree, and plucking a few leaves, chewed on them. To their surprise they started feeling better soon after and were neither thirsty nor hungry anymore. Those leaves were tea leaves, of course.
Rajesh was reticent, almost shy when we first met him. But that too, we saw. was a Singpho trait. They are a culturally rich community who have encountered economic exploitation but are now determined to keep their way of life alive. And they don’t like to rush anything.
The Singphos have rebuilt a community and are keen to bring back traditional tea growing practices, sustainability and organic agriculture and a collective way of living. The three days that we spent there were nothing short of inspiring.
They have chosen to work as a community. For instance, there was one processing facility that is collectively owned by the community. As for the tea gardens, well, that was even more fascinating. We were invited to the home of Rajesh Singpho and after being served another cup of coin tea, we requested a tour of his backyard.There, we saw his entire family walking through plants that were atleast 8-10ft tall. We watched in amazement as everyone picked leaves methodically from the branches of these trees. Even Ravi, who has been in the industry for many years, admitted that he had never seen tea bushes this tall.
Once the plucking was complete, the women emptied the leaves into a big wok. They were slow roasted and set out to dry in the sun. Once dried, they were crushed and filled into bamboo hollows which were placed on racks above the cooking hearth. Over as long as two months, the teas would slowly smoke over the fire. When it was ready, the entire stick of tea would be removed from the bamboo and small dices, the size of a coin, would be cut to make a cup of tea.
Much as I found the taste of tea to be pleasant, for me, it was their food that caught my attention. Unlike most of India, in a manner reminiscent of another age, the Singpho cuisine is determined by season trends; the use of spices is negligible, and flavours are based on herbs they forage from their backyard. We were served local dishes at the lodge throughout our stay. And it was one delicacy after another. All the cooking is done over a fireplace and while there was a modern day gas stove in a corner, we never saw it being used.
The flavor that slow, wood fire cooking imparts in food is unforgettable for me. Skewers of pork spiced with ginger, garlic and lemon; curries bubbling away all day in mud pots; rice being wrapped in leaves that are unique to the region to be cooked later and chutneys being ground in a kingsize mortar and pestle – smoking, curing meat and even pickling are techniques used to preserve their food.
Every house has a small kitchen garden attached to it where most of the vegetables they eat come from. At one meal we were served five different varieties of chutneys, made from jackfruit, pork, fish, tomato and bhut jhalokia, that most fiery of chillies. I was advised to use the bhut jhalokia chutney sparingly. It’s used to add a sharp flavor not spice and a little goes a long way.
One thing that I did miss during our stay was dessert. Dessert doesn’t generally feature on the Assamese menu, though the younger generation does indulge in pastries or ice cream once in a while. And throughout our stay, I don’t ever remember being served dessert at the end of dinner. Instead meals are concluded by sucking on Assamese lemons which are sweet and sour. A digestive aid, apparently.
My most memorable dish was pork stewed in broth and seasoned with flavours that were lemony with a hint of basil and chilies. Being a food blogger, I thought I knew what went into it, but with a little prodding, I was shown a bunch of herbs that had gone into the stew and I was stumped. They tasted like basil and lemongrass but looked nothing like them. Where I’d expected dishes screaming chillies but instead, I tasted food which was light, flavourful with a hint of chillies. Sticky rice was a part of every meal and was perfect with the watery broths that came with it. Chillies are eaten for their digestive benefits; jaggery is the preferred sweetener and used instead of sugar, and no processed fat is added while cooking. Vegetables make a large part of every meal and is eaten in larger portions than meat.
We spent an entire day with Rajesh’s family, who were hospitable and eager to show us everything they could in the time that we had. One member brought us a bunch of herbs to taste. One, with an intense peppermint flavour numbed our tongues to anything else for half an hour.
Now back in the city, I have tried to replicate some of the Singpho food I tasted. I may not remember all the herbs I saw and smelt and tasted. But what I am less likely to ever forget is the people I met, a simple community so close to nature, complex in their love for tea, and determined to keep the remote peace of their way of life.