You shouldn’t trust me. Because, I am the sort of person who changes the way she likes to take her tea often — the sort of a person my grandmother always said she didn’t trust.
And I fell in love with tea in her kitchen. She had an elaborate brewing ritual. In the brass toap (Marathi for a vessel) that played her teapot for many decades (she lost count of how long she’d been using it for), she would heat the water on a flame. Right before the water came to a boil, she’d add sugar from her steel dabba with a muted shine from years of scrubbing, always measuring out 4 spoons (not a teaspoon, not a tablespoon, this was a weird clover shaped sugar-spoon). Then she’d watch the pot, leaning against her ota (kitchen platform) for about half a minute. Small bubbles would start swimming up to the surface of the water, slowly a denseness swirling into the vessel as the sugar melted away. This was the time to measure out tea. A matching used steel dabba, only a bit slimmer than the sugar dabba would come off the window sill next to her stove. In its lid, 5 spoons of tea were measured (again a clover shaped spoon). By this time, the water would have come to the verge of boiling – the bubbles were rising with more enthusiasm, but the water wasn’t violently boiling yet. She threw in the tea into this sugar water, and took a few seconds for it to swim around. Now, at the right time, she’d switch off the flame with one hand and with the other hand cover the toap with a metal dish. It was one swift motion.
Then she moved about getting the cups ready, and poured milk in our cups using a strainer because none of us liked malai bits floating about in our tea. The cup had to be filled to a point little over 1/5th of a cup and little lesser than 1/4th. Each of us had a cup that we preferred – she had her china cup and saucer, my sister and I drank from our own ceramic mugs and grandpa had a clear glass mug. No matter who was drinking tea and who wasn’t, she’d make the exact quantity of decoction needed, nothing left but no cup short – this precision I am yet to achieve.
Once the tea cups were assembled, she’d use her trusted kitchen rag (it was tattered but was clean as can be), to pull the lid off the toap. The tea leaves would settle at the bottom. She’d use her pakkad, and then meticulously strain the decoction over the milk. No splashing, no spilling. This tea was strong, but not bitter. It was sweet but not sickly sweet. It was hot enough to comfort your ‘tallaf’ but it didn’t scald your tongue. This was and will always be my idea of the perfect tea.
The close second to this tea is the tea my sister makes. Our entire household waits for Nani’s annual vacation home for this brew. In fact, we time our day such that we can be present in my parents’ home at tea time, making it convenient for my sister to ask us, ‘Would you like some tea’. I honestly don’t know why she asks. Nobody in their right mind would say no if she were to just hand us the cup. But the catch with sister’s tea is that she can make just 2 cups at a time. When she makes it for all of us, the brew is still fantastic, but there’s something missing and none of us can tell what. She brews it almost like Manuaai did, but with slight modifications. Her tea is light on both milk and sugar, but high on flavour.
Some days, you just need an overboiled, oversweetened cutting at the roadside thela. It’s not my favourite but over the many years spent on the road for work, Stockholm syndrome has set in.
If I am visiting someone at their home or office and a beverage is offered, tea is something I choose with trepidation. There’s always the risk of a weak, milky, sugary liquid slightly flavoured with tea appearing in a cup. But some friends make the most unique teas. Some teas are spiked with ginger and lemongrass, some spice their teas with special masalas, some add elaichi and kesar to their tea and some use jaggery in place of sugar. All varieties have had a deep emotional bond with me, and all of them I like to periodically relish in their natural habitat i.e. the friend’s home. Every home has its signature tea and it never tastes the same elsewhere. I have made enough bad cups of tea to realise that replicating the tea of a certain household is just not wise.
I got married four years ago. A resident tea flavouring just didn’t emerge for my house. Sometimes we made tea like Manuaai did, sometimes ‘Nani’ tea was attempted, sometimes I made it with lots of ginger, sometimes with lots of lemongrass, sometimes with Rushina’s special tea masala. But if a guest were to ask for tea in my house, there’s no comfort of a guaranteed flavour or taste. But with most people who visit me, I find a way to comfort them with a cup that will make them feel at home. I know that my grandmother would still eye me with suspicion, but if she were around, I’d have made her a cup that would have gotten her to trust me.