Chai story: Part 2: Singpho tribe & the wild tea shrubs of Assam

 Although documentary evidences dating back to 350 BC prove that tea had its origins in China, there have been speculations of tea being consumed in India as well, albeit in different forms. Contrary to the popular misconception, tea was not really an “imported/foreign” crop, but is an indigenous plant of India. If not for thousands of years, tea has been an integral part for atleast 900 years in different parts of India, the most prominent regions being Arunachal Pradesh & Assam which are the homeland for Singphos, the tribe which has been drinking tea since the 12th century.

Unlike today’s modern tea plantations which are meticulously cultivated with plants not taller than 3-4 feet, the tree plants in Arunachal & Assam which were harvested by the Singpho tribe hundreds of years ago, were actually wild shurbs in forests, usually more than 10 feet tall and they normally would mount on elephants to pluck tea leaves from those shrubs, and the practice is still followed in some (tribal) parts of Assam today.
There have been documented evidences from the medieval period during which the Singpho King had offered “dark liquid brewed from local wild tea plants” as medicinal drinks to Dutch & Portuguese travelers. This further vindicates the stand that tea, if not as a beverage, has been in use in India as a medicinal drink for hundreds of years.

As mentioned earlier, tea in India was being consumed in different forms across geographies in different ways which might sound interesting. For example, in the Kutch region of Gujarat, it has been a practice for hundreds of years among certain tribes & communities to boil tea leaves along with milk & sugar, strain the blended liquid to retain only the leaves and throw away the tea itself!! These boiled leaves which were enriched with milk & sugar would be served as a delicious snack.
In certain regions of North-East India, tea leaves were mixed with cooked rice and after overnight soaking, the dish would be slightly fermented and consumed as a meal. This custom is still in practice in some parts of NE India, and is part of the Burmese cuisine. In several parts of India, tea leaves with tulsi herb, honey & ginger were used as ayurvedic medicine to treat cough & cold. In the 16th century, there were travel accounts of Portuguese & Dutch, citing that people of India prepared a vegetable dish using tea leaves along with garlic and oil and the boiled tea leaves were used to prepare a medicinal drink as well. There might have been several more ways in which tea was consumed by Indians across the sub-continent adapted accordingly to their cultures & cuisines.

If tea is indigenous to India and was consumed in different ways (but not today’s conventional way) for hundreds of years, then how did it eventually reach the state it has attained today as a conventional beverage? We shall find out in the subsequent parts.