Now what - Kerala special tea!!

We in India are so fond of drinking tea and spending time doing it. Companies & offices had tea breaks some time ago and thus spending a while drinking that essence from the magical leaf and chit chatting over it, has become a national pastime. For that very reason, we have hordes of tea boys in the national workforce and thousands of tea shops dotted across the country. Most are shacks by the road side, some have now become mobile (Thattu kada’s serving idli’s & dosas as well) and some have graduated to become mini restaurants where freshly cooked snacks & light meals are also served. In Kerala, Tea stalls are very common and have become a meeting point of sorts, where people come to discuss politics, national & international news, movies (and Shakeela), gossip and even the economic situation. I can easily assure you that every Malayali would have sat on one of those wooden benches that are placed outside the tea stall and sipped a tea from one of those characteristic ‘glasses’. Sometimes these places are even called Nair shops by non Mallus. Here is where you would find mostly dhoti or lungi clad people with a lot of time at hand, rambling usually about the politics of the land - the rulers, the rules and the ruled.

A tea stall is not for the loner. Never would you be left alone, somebody is bound to ask you the time, or the state of life or for that matter the state of the nation, which you must be prepared to answer, eloquently. Some places are a frequent haunt for the eloquent type, they normally end up reading the newspaper aloud for the benefit of the others, making sure that topics are chosen carefully and stress put where group interaction is needed. You can see him gazing around the audience, and raising his voice when need be.

The tea stall owner, the referee, meant to ensure fairness in the surroundings, in addition to preparing the magic brew, is usually hunched over the boiler, checking the flames under it and ensuring the potency of the brew, not by tasting, but by the mere color of the previous serving. He would then take out the old discolored, wrinkly tea bag from the boiler, puts in the tea leaves for the next brew and then starts to look around. Ensuring that people of warring political factions are not raising a ruckus or arguing, he chats with some known regulars. I guess we should call them KR – known regulars.

Let me ask you a question out of context though. Who knows what the popular usage ‘KD’ means? It means ‘Known dacoit’. So now you know what it means when some other Malayali refers to somebody else as a KD, but then, the usage in Kerala has nothing to do with dacoits. It is usually synonymous with ‘rouge’.

Sometimes an out of state or ‘not local’ character comes along, in an auto, or alighting from the bus to ask directions. Here is when the ‘Google map’ brain of our teaman springs to action aided by all & sundry drinking tea. Here is where the visitor gets inner details of the family he is about to visit, the recent scandals if any, the parentage and so on…and of course directions that are best ‘avoided’ as they can be quite long, winding ( With N,S,W&E thrown in) and difficult to memorize.

Teashops are places where a Malayali vents himself. How I wish we had in Kerala a place like the ‘
Speakers corner’ in Hyde Park London where anybody could go to and speak and never be taken to task. I assure you, there would be queues & tickets to enter that place. Well, maybe not…I guess even without a corner, at least in Kerala, a Malayali is outspoken…

The very fact that these watering holes are dear to a Malayali is proven by checking Wikimapia where you will find the tea shops (Like Mohan’s tea shop, Kingini annan’s chayakada, Bhaskaran’s tea shop etc…) in many villages prominently mapped. For here is where the idle mind sits, reading the newspaper, where many brainwaves are discussed, arguments settled and curiosity satiated.

The Malayali tea shop entrepreneur has cornered about
70% of teakada’s in Chennai and many other places. In Mumbai trading Malayalis first started out as Chatai wallas (selling Pulpaya – grass mats), then Nariyal walas (tender coconut) and now have entered the tea stall business. They can be found everywhere, announcing their heritage proudly – ‘Kerala tea stall’. I remember the case of the Malayali ‘Ambika applam’ chain owner, who apparently started as a tea shop boy, went on to own the tea shop, then branched off into making the world famous Ambika Applams and even owned the lodge where I lived for a year -Ambika Nivas in Triplicane.

The Malayali’s affinity for tea & tea stalls is legendry. So many jokes abound for example of Neil Armstrong landing in Moon and being asked if he wanted tea by a Mallu who already had his tea shop there (another variation – Hillary reaching the Everest summit). A fairly recent joke goes thus - If your late father left you a part of an old house as your inheritance, and you turned it into a “chaya kada” (tea stall) yes, you’re a Malayali.

Back to the tea shop - Soon the bare bodied (usually so in the summer) teaman figured out that people who ambled by to drink a cup of tea might eat biscuits or some fresh savories. Thus those nice big rows of bottles with all kinds of such stuff started appearing, then came the other Mallu favorites like plantain ‘kula’s’ hanging on a rope (different varieties from the Poovan, to Palaynkodan to the Eatha or Nendra pazham), a variety of cigarettes, though the common man always smoked Scissors. The must in all those places was the slowly smoldering rope to light the cigarette or the electric version where you pressed a button and the coil burnt red.

When you place an order for your tea, you also have to specify two things – the strength (strong, medium, light), with or without milk (Kattan) and the amount of sugar (only these days). Once that is done you have to state how hot you want it (most Mallus want it scalding hot – Mind you, the kind of lawsuit that got the millions for the scalded American lady from the deep pocketed Macdonald’s, is not going to work here!! ) and that is when the teaman exhibits his brilliance with getting it all right. Standing next to his brass boiler, he pours the concoction of tea brew, sugar, milk and boiling water from glass to mug and back with unmatched flourish. The tea stays stretched out almost horizontally and then vertically as the glass, liquid and mug flash past your bewildered eyes. You will notice that not a drop is spilled, and the drink gathers a nice and impressive half to 3/4th inch of froth. ‘Chaya ready’ he shouts out, for you to pick it up.

The mustachioed Malayali dips his whiskers into the froth, lips on the glass edge and takes a deep swig, and later, after using the back of his hand to clean his moustache; he utters the first contended sigh of the morning. He then proceeds to dissecting local, national & international news from the newspaper at hand. Unlike neighboring Tamil Nadu tea shops which
got into troubles about maintaining a second set of glasses for Dalits, Kerala does not segregate by caste in tea shops.

Ever so rarely, he makes a mistake with proportions and the knowing customer is bound to notice. He is quick to react - proclaiming the liquid to be akin to ‘ara vellam’ (translated as ‘liquid from the drains’)…and provoking much argument over the present mental state of the teaman.

Washing up is easy – He has two plastic basins full of water, once for the pre-wash and one for the final rinse. The setup in general is efficient and environment friendly, somebody from the local populace supplies a few liters of fresh milk in the morning (remember the Mohanlal movie where he is watering down the milk on a wayside field??). The glasses are washable….the water from some municipal tap nearby.

Ah! These are things you will always miss at the Starbucks and the 711 and all those places. The ambience that you would only find at a Chayakada…Even though many tea stalls progressed to adding things like soft drinks, under the counter ‘pot’ packets, batteries, oil & shampoo and much more to graduate on to a more respectable ‘petti kada’ the traditional & much loved tea stall remains. Now you can see how the
glorious tea ceremonies in China or Taiwan differ vastly from the gulp, read, smoke & gossip tea sessions in India…

So finally to the point - Who said Malayali’s are not enterprising? While getting the pictures required for this post, I stumbled upon something called KST.
Kerala special tea - served in a china teapot with cups and saucers with the required froth layer. This tourist was introduced to KST in Cochin where they were mystified by the fact that so many people were drinking tea with their curries. It dawned on them later that you need an extra expensive bar license to sell alcohol in a restaurant. Thus originated KST…KST ‘beer’ might be served in a teapot, or as a bottle wrapped in newspaper and placed under the table, or you might have to sit at the back of the restaurant to consume it.

Once -
Much before TV, Internet and other modern media made their entry and opinion polls began on an hourly-basis, humble tea stalls, once ubiquitous in the length and breadth of Kerala, traditionally provided the only viable forums for political debate. Candidates, unsure of their fate, used to send men incognito to tea stalls to eavesdrop on chatter and report back. These reports would become inputs for strategy or provide for course corrections. But in these tea huts or makeshift stalls, which provide benches and one or two newspapers, sometimes politics gets too hot. Now, increasingly signboards come up asking customers to sip quietly and leave. "No credit and political debates here."

Irani hotels in the 40’s & 50’s added Opium seeds – it was called Hafim tea & the idea was to get addicted people come often to their shops – you would never need that in Kerala, ever.

So well, that is a Chayakada for you – as they say, the best place to unite and make friends!! Today we also have a
cyber Chayakada!! And of course,

Read this inspiring story about
Chayakada haneefa

History of tea
It was in China that tea-drinking began about 2000 years ago. In the course of trading with China in the 17th and 18th centuries, the British developed a national taste for the beverage brewed from tea leaves. Beginning in the mid-19th century, British businessmen began planting tea from the northern Indian state of Assam all over India. Their goal was to take the international market from China, and they largely succeeded.

The Danish and Swedish East India companies at one point were more successful in the tea trade than the British, and would smuggle tea into Britain for huge profits. But well, who the hell knew these Skandinavian companies even existed!! I did not, till today!!

Tea plantations in Kerala - Munnar. Munnar was developed to cultivate tea plants by British although it was first discovered by Scottish planters. In 1877 Poonjar, a subordinate of the Maharaja of Travancore, leased 588 sq. km of land around Munnar to a Mr. J D Munro, a British lawyer cum tea planter.

Tea stall picture – Jacob1575 on flickr.
Teastall2- Globosapiens
Tea cooling
pic – David MP
Ithatha’s stall
pic – from linked site
making tea from linked site


Pradeep said…
A great tribute to this very Malayali stuff. Tea stalls are there in other corners of India too, but I doubt if the ambiance and topics of discussion there are anything even remotely close to what is in Kerala. I am forwarding this to some of my non-Keralite friends.
harimohan said…
dear maddy,
once again a post iloved ,well written ,the tea shop is akin to coffee houses of kolkata where all and sundry meet and interact ,i myself have enjoyed the strong tea from these shops at a pittance to starbucks expensive sterile alternatives
Nanditha Prabhu said…
nalla onnandaram post, maddy sir!
nattil pooya oru anubhooti kitti.
Maddy, great post. Nice pictures too, especially the one with the boy pouring the tea in a 3-foot curve!


p.s. Btw, I didn't realize Wikimapia was so detailed. You've now given me a fresh new website to while away my time. :)
narendra shenoy said…
Been traveling, havent had time to catch up on stuff, but couldn't miss your blog for the world. I have been amply rewarded. I have spent many a blissful college hour at these places (I studied in Manipal, Karnataka, but close enough to Kerala for cultural similarity. Those days these shops were run mostly by Keralites. And after almost 25 years of hearing it I know what "KD" means. Yippee! I'm going to kick a certain Malayalee friend who called me that all thru college, swearing that it meant "close friend" in Malayalam.
Happy Kitten said…
Wow another great post from the master!

Malayalee and the "Chaya Kada".. on our recent visit to Kerala, I did get to taste this tea.. but I waited in the car itself to drink it and not on the bench.. I think it was at Karunagapally.. anyway ur posts are always nostalgic..

as for tea.. i grew up with those plants and I love that brew! and I shall die if i dont get to drink it!
Maddy said…
Thanks Pradeep, Hari, HK, Narendra, BPSK, Nandita...

A 'follow up' blog is coming up and that should be interesting for many!!
Ashvin said…
A question.... do any of you know what an Arkonam Nair is ? connected to tea shops....
Maddy said…
no clue ashvin - waiting for the answer..
nkr4068 said…
Hey, a nice tribute to our own stuff. I got a feeling that, you got carried away with the ideas you see on malayalam movies and the details reminded me of many of those movies, as i never have seen much of those in real life. Well, may be you could have seen all these for real. But this doesn't really take away the credits, for you, a nice one n i can feel the smell of a cup of tea, 1000's of miles away from home.

A Journey to the Unknown Spaces
Kannur gal said…
Lovely write-up.
Have you seen women in any chai kada ? Sadly it is a man's sojourn. Kerala is still so patriarchal. The only chai I had from a chai kadai was on a field trip to rural Kerala. The shack was on the road side, the chai so thick, milky and sweet. There was no seating, we stood on the roadside and had it. I can still taste it. Other than that, my idea of what happens in a chai kadai is what I have gathered from kungi movies. Cheers.
Maddy said…
hi Kannurgal..
well, if you go to travancore interiors, you will see some.
but well, things are changing..go to a coffee day, these day, you will see it well mixed!