Jeff Koehler lives in Barcelona and has written extensively on Spanish cuisine. His most recent book, however, leaves Europe and food for Asia and tea. Titled Darjeeling, The Colorful History and Precarious Fate of the World’s Greatest Tea, it’s the latest and one of the most engaging books written on Darjeeling’s tea industry. It was released in the US in May this year and is scheduled for an Indian release in September. That leaves Jeff in that interesting in-between space that authors find themselves in — book tours. For the last couple of months, emails have gone back and forth. My mails always catch him on his way to a tour or on his return from one, and once even in transit! But Jeff finally paused long enough to talk to us about how it all began, before stepping out to catch another flight.

Tell us how you began writing about food.

My writing life began somewhat improbably as a playwright in Barcelona. But when my wife — a scientist at a university in Barcelona — got her first post-doctoral position in La Jolla, California, I packed away all my theatre stuff and began freelancing for magazines and newspapers. That was around 2000.

I never set out to write about food, but almost straightaway found that food was a great way to tell a story. It was a way into a story, or a place.

How did the books on Spanish and Moroccan cuisine happen?

By the time we returned to Barcelona three years later, I had a contract for my first cookbook, La Paella: Deliciously Authentic Rice Dishes from Spain’s Mediterranean Coast, based on a magazine piece.

Once I was living in Spain, I began travelling to Morocco. Without question, it is one of my favorite countries to visit, and I go frequently. I even wrote a book about Moroccan cuisine, Morocco: A Culinary Journey with Recipes.

The cookbook that followed that, culminating in a rather comprehensive one on traditional Spanish cooking, is Spain: Recipes and Traditions —the fruits of my many years living in and traveling around the country. Like the previous three works, it’s part recipe book, part travel book, part photo book. It’s the most personal of my cookbooks.

How did you discover Darjeeling and its tea?

When I finished university (Gonzaga, in Spokane, Washington) in 1991 I flew to London to spend a year traveling overland to Cape Town. That planned year on the road, though, turned into four years backpacking around Africa and Asia before I settled down do post-graduate work at King’s College London (where I met my wife).

I was young, beginning to travel, beginning to learn about the world. Many places along the way left a deep impression. Among them was India. I crossed over from Pakistan and spent my first days in the country staying at the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

My grandparents had gone to India a number of times when I was a kid and I always loved their stories, especially the ones about a Kashmiri houseboat called The Boojum on Nagin Lake outside Srinagar. I spent a month on The Boojum, with the family whom my grandparents had become quite close over the years and visits.

Tea was a big part of my travels. Perhaps more than anything else those years, I was sustained by numerous daily cups of tea — strong, generally milky, always sweet, preferably spiced.

My fondest memories of many of the places I visited include tea — from tea shacks in a Nairobi suburb to the tribal areas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border to ferries in Istanbul and in homes along the Nile in Sudan.

This is true in India more than anywhere else. I couldn’t even begin to count the number of cups of chai in those little clay cups bought at train stations or on trains from chai wallahas and dashed to the ground when empty.

I had been on the road for a couple of years when I traveled to Darjeeling and tasted tea itself for the first time: no sugar, no milk, no lemon, no cardamom or ginger, no black pepper. Just tea. It had poise rather than the bounce of chai: patience over velocity, soft-spoken rather than brash, contemplative more than energetic. It seemed as bright and fresh as the surrounding tea-covered mountainous landscape where it was growing.

And how did a book about Darjeeling come about? And how did you write it?

That first visit was the beginning of my passion for Darjeeling — the place, the tea, the culture around it, the people of the area.…

After writing four cookbooks, I was keen to do a narrative non-fiction book. And it had all the elements for a great story — from its incredible history to how and why tea was planted there to the challenges the industry is facing today.

Doing a book means complete immersion in the topic for a couple of years. Writing about a place means lots of time on the road and even more time in the library. A vast amount of research went into this book.

On the ground in Darjeeling, it took closely following an entire harvesting year, from the first flush in March until the autumn flush in November. I spent time in each of the four flushes —watching the seasons change, watching the tea bushes change, watching the tea change.

I was writing and reporting it simultaneously. It was all-consuming. There was simply so much to learn and read. In Darjeeling, I spent most of my days out on various tea estates and my nights typing up my notes.

Tell us a little about your writing life in Barcelona.

Writing fulltime means that I am completely flexible. And while I can walk my eleven-year old daughter to school and can meet friends for lunch, it also means that I am editing pieces at midnight. I simply seem to always be working. I work whenever I can because there are always many things to do — from writing and editing to pitching ideas to editors to publicizing a recent book.

We presume you enjoy tea, especially the Darjeeling. Which teas do you drink?

While I do enjoy a good strong chai made with some brisk Assam and plenty of spices, and Moroccan gunpowder green tea with lots of fresh mint stuffed into the glass, I am pretty faithful to the Darjeeling.

Specifically, as far as Darjeeling goes, I love the springy zip of first flush and also that roundly mellow complexity of autumn flush: a tea bush’s first offers and its last.

The photograph features author Jeff Koehler tasting tea in Darjeeling.
Photo source: Jeff Koehler

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3 Comments

  1. Utsow Pradhan Reply

    Within 10 minutes of reading this blog post, I happened to place an online order for Jeff’s book on Darjeeling and its tea.

    Thank you for writing this post!

  2. Victoria Ingram Reply

    I went to Darjeeling (and India) for the very first time this year. I found this book on my return and read it eagerly. It only confirms my intent to return, now with added knowledge to make even more out of a visit to this glorious place.
    It really is a wonderful book and I recommend it highly. One of those books that, when you realise you are nearing the end, you read more slowly to eke out its delights.

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