Tea lovers know better than to dismiss tea as a drink, it is truly an emotion and often involves several calculations and calibrations on the part of the host. And what is tea without a side of the perfect crumbly, moist or crisp snack.
When I sit back (often with a cup of tea) and think about the numerous cups I have shared with friends, family, coworkers and acquaintances, I can’t help but remember the accompaniments to the cuppa. I think of the crisp, sweet cardamom-flavored Rusks my mother dips into her generous-sized mug of milky cardamom tea with half a teaspoon of sugar or how my grandmother who, for as long as I can remember, favored the lighter, sweet and salty Krack Jack. The cookie changed companies, names and flavor, but her tea tray remains incomplete without the perforated squares of guilt-free indulgence.
If there is such a thing as tea preferences that say something about the people they belong to, a lot can equally be said by their choice of tea snacks. Often enough, the tea and the snack create a harmonious but delicate balance which replicates itself in perfection, day after day. It’s something I have begun to love observing, this coming together, sometimes of contrasting flavors with tea.
Staying in several different cities and regions in the country introduced me to a world of varied tea time munchies. Working as a journalist with copious amounts of tea being consumed all around me only added to this education.
It started with my early years in Dehradun, where I was born and spent the early years of my life. It was also the perfect place to have begun my initiation to tea with tended gardens and weather that barely ever gave you a chance to complain. Tea time was a daily celebration of sorts, dainty crockery was brought out and freshly baked cookies from a local bakery was on offer. Daily snacks were always crisp, sweet and loaded with butter. There was the quintessential Rusk, smaller and softer wheat biscuits or the fancier variety with added pistachios. Everyone in Dehradun had a bakery they favored; ours was Elloras, one of the oldest in town and loved for its perfect rusks. For cookies and stick-jaws, it had to be Standard at Astley Hall. The bakeries in Dehra continue to retain their charm to this day and are still as good as they used to be.
This tradition of cookies and rusk was only broken on certain chilly wet evenings when tea time nearly spilled over to dinner time. The noise of spurting oil was overheard from neighborhood kitchens signaled an evening of crunchy pakodas or the crunchier bread rolls. Slices of bread stuffed with potatoes and deep fried. Napkins kept handy to wipe off the oil that these loaded-with-guilt rolls oozed. The low health rating and increased consciousness is perhaps why I have never tasted one of those ever after. But no rainy day tea time passes without reminiscing over them.
My childhood was largely characterized by other far-flung small towns and frequent relocations. After hilly Dehra, it was the coastal Mangalore followed by the quaint fishing town of Tuticorin. Mangalore was a bustling little town where I accompanied my parents to parties at city clubs or hosted by genial Mangaloreans. The old-fashioned tiled houses, the crazy rains and all the greenery added to the beauty of this town.
In Tuticorin, we lived in a house in the Port colony, by the sea and 15 odd miles away from the town. The town didn’t have much to offer and most days were spent curled up with books with the whooshing sound of the waves for company. A mere three-hour ride from the Southern tip of the country the strong gusty winds had reduced tea time to a boring and quick indoor affair. Until I encountered the gorgeous ‘Thoothukudi Cashew Macaroons’. Macaroons or macarons weren’t as popular or widely available back then and I had never heard of them before. My introduction to macaroons was when Lionel Uncle, a friend of my father’s arrived at our place with a red, fairly large, box, that we knew was a mithai box. He lived in ‘town’, at arm’s length from ‘ Lady of Snows Church’, the only real monument Tuticorin could boast of. Offering us the box, Lionel Uncle insisted we open it right away for a bite.
I remember opening the box, and being greeted by fluffy white cone like structures that, to me, looked like art. It took just a bite to be transported into bakers’ heaven. Oh, how they crumbled! The combination of crunchy cashews and melt-in-the-mouth meringue-like texture have rendered them unforgettable. There are many stories of how the first macaroon made its way to Tuticorin and onward to the Indianized version that dots bakeries, but the most popular of them is the one associated with Dhanalakshmi Bakery. It’s believed that the baker, Arunachalam Pillai, picked up the recipe from an Anglo-Indian in Chennai, pre-independence and brought it to Tuticorin and the rest is history.
Living now in a metro (Bangalore) and often biting into macaroons from artisinal bakeries, I still miss its sugary sweet indianized version. And remember Lionel Uncle fondly for having introduced me to them.
It was all about the sweet baked stuff at tea time until we made yet another drastic move to an arid small town in Kutch by the name Gandhidham. Here, I was greeted by a barrage of savory snacks, consumed throughout the day and as an accompaniment to tea. Invariably, they were all made of gram flour, a staple in the region. The tea here was stronger, milkier and sweeter and the spicy snacks helped offset the richness. The names rhymed – khakhra, fafda and chivda, and in some sense they all belonged to the larger family of ‘nasto’ (Gujarati for snack). The khakhra, a thin round savory snack remains a favorite for being oil-free and crunchy and with mild flavors of cumin and fenugreek. The dhokla or its fluffier variant, khamman, deserves mention, simply for its ubiquitous presence all over Gujarat as a tea accompaniment. Despite a scarily synthetic name, I favored the ‘Nylon khamman’ for its fluffy steamed texture topped with a fresh coriander and grated coconut garnish.
Years later, during my days at a newspaper in Bangalore when our friendly tea vendor, with tea in shot-sized plastic cups, demanded I try the local savory cookie, ‘nippatu’, I was a bit apprehensive. I had had my share of fried savory snacks for a while, but decided to try it anyway. Deep fried with bits of split gram, curry leaves and red chilli, this one is slightly tough on the bite but brings an explosion of flavors. I had found a winner to pair with my watery tea, and I eagerly waited for the vendor’s 8 pm arrival to the office. Four years hence, I now regularly stock a packet at home for days when I need a spicy kick with my tea.
On most other days however, I lean towards a moist and moderately sweet tea cake, settling for a cookie on lazy days. The cake of favor is vanilla-flavored and bought at one of the two oldest bakeries in my part of town, Thomson Bakery. It comes wrapped in a brown paper bag, and usually handed to me by a smiling man who invariably updates me on the latest additions to the bakery. It was cupcakes for a awhile and now they are trying their hand at Red Velvet, which he’s heard is all the rage in newer bakeries across town.
Looking back, chai has been a constant in my life, turning up no matter where I go. A cup of chai and a plate of snacks not only turns into an experience but has become a trip down memory lane – a piece of cake can carry a big whoosh of nostalgia, a humble bun can remind me of a town I once called home and a simple cracker brings back grandma’s tales of ‘partition’.