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An Anthropologist learns to drink tea in the Himalayas

Lady Baker's Tea is happy to have Sharon Hepburn as our guest blogger this week sharing her tea experiences in Nepal with us. Sharon teaches Anthropology at Trent University in Ontario. She has altogether spent over 4 years in Nepal. After living in Nepal from 1990-1993 she spent a summer in Prince Edward Island, writing and enjoying hot running water, speaking English, and drinking Earl Grey tea.

By Sharon Hepburn

On my first day learning Nepali language, I learnt how to say “have you had tea yet?” This is how you say “hello” in Nepal early in the morning, and in the late afternoon too, as these are the times people would generally take tea (and a snack). As an anthropologist getting ready to leave for a few years of research in the Himalayan kingdom, I found this reassuring. Raised in Britain, tea was part of my cultural horizon, and so, I thought, “here’s one thing that would be the same”. I had visions of a nice crisp Darjeeling in the afternoon, and perhaps thick “builder’s tea” to wake up to, much as my Irish father liked. The reality was quite different, and certainly there was no lovely London Fog in sight.


Village tea stall, Myagdi, 1967

As I settled into the small town I would teach English in while learning more Nepali language, I was keen to meet people. I thought teaching children would be good as I would have an obvious reason to talk to them and their families. I thought it would be a social entrée. As I walked around, people enjoyed the novelty of the foreigner speaking Nepali, and asked—as I walked by, hoping for conversation---“have you had tea yet?”. Each time I was, at first, delighted. But although I technically knew (in the classroom at home) that asking if someone had had tea is just a way of saying “hello”, when faced with real people in Nepal I relied more on my own culture’s habits. I heard what they said much like a Canadian “have you had lunch yet?”; when someone asks us this, and we haven’t, they will often suggest we have lunch together. So I answered “No, I’ve not had tea yet!” and gave what must have been a friendly, expectant look. People answered with a smile, and that characteristic South Asian waggle of the head, that looks to Canadians like “no”, but to Nepalis it’s a “yes”, “good”, “I see”. And I’d stop, waiting for a “let’s have a cup” or “here, sit down and we’ll make some”. But people just walked on, or asked a few more questions, or just turned back to what they had been doing, the issue (in my head) of tea-drinking not returned to. I knew that asking about tea just meant “hello”, but every interaction like this my first few weeks left me feeling puzzled and unwelcome, even though everyone seemed friendly enough. Can “tea” be this complicated?

1971 children and a foreign visitor at a village tea stall in the Pokhara Valley

Obviously with time I had and offered many cups of tea. From and to Nepalis, and at tea stalls. The style of tea was not what I preferred—some nice Earl Grey, hot please --but I came to appreciate it for its warmth and sweetness, as something to pause for by a trailside, or chat over, and it was especially welcome in winter. It was a universal offering of hospitality and comradery. Unless someone was just saying “hello”, of course.

Sharon in Nepal 1992, dreaming of tea

Through the winter of 1990-91 I lived with a family in Kathmandu, in their small home with no running water. The grandmother ran the house and made a small business growing plants from seedlings, and selling from the compound we lived in. She took care of her youngest son—then 23—and the two young boys—8 and 14--from her eldest son’s first marriage. He had abandoned the boys to her care as the second wife didn’t want them. Luxmi’s husband had died 10 years before. I made my way to the kitchen in the morning, and sat on the wooden plank embedded in the clay floor, that served as a seat, and waited for tea. Luxmi showed me how I should properly make tea. She showed me that you start by putting milk (preferably waterbuffalo milk) in equal parts with water in a pot. If we had them, we added some combination of cardamom pods, whole cloves, and crushed cinnamon bark and some slices of fresh ginger. Then came white sugar: no honey or agave please! I preferred no sugar, but most Nepalis thought this odd, and certainly you would not offer guests unsweetened tea. We heated the mixture to just short of boiling, stirring now and then. Now was the time to add the tea itself. Luxmi bought tea by the scoopful in the bazaar, and it was a mix of small granular bits of tea and tea dust. The predominant taste was Assam-like, but of poorish quality. For special occasions we had the Nepali knock-off of the famous Red Label tea launched in British India in 1903. The Nepali knock-off was called “Reddish Label”, and the contents looked much like what Luxmi bought for everyday. With tea in the pot, we let it boil up to the top of the pan, let it cool, let it boil to the top again, and so on a few times. Then the tea was strained into small glass cups. So nice to hold in the unheated kitchen on cold mornings.

Luxmi told me that when she was a child in the 1930s they had no tea “and didn’t even know about it”. As she grew up she told me “tea became available, and then sugar. Then we got the habit and now can’t live without it”. And so it was. This may astonish you if you associate the Himalayan foothills with Assam, Darjeeling, and other teas. But until the 1950s Nepal was run by a despotic regime which restricted access to any foreign good to the elite. There were few motorable roads in Nepal and any commodity that was not locally produced was hard to come by in Kathmandu. Most tea that didn’t go to the elite went south to India. During two world wars, the British recruited Nepalese hill people (living north, east and west of Kathmandu) to fight in what came to be the Gurkha regiments; the returning soldiers brought tea-drinking habits back with them. And gradually the habits grew and spread, and “now we can’t live without it.”

In the 1990s there were tea stalls throughout Kathmandu. Back then there were still few roads outside the city. By necessity Nepalis travelled by walking trails that criss-crossed the country, winding through rice terraces and dusty plains, edging tumultuous rivers, and going up and down the spines of the Himalayan mountain range. Throughout the country there are tea stalls, places to put down your load and sit for a bit in the shade, or by the warmth of the fire, and revive yourself with some hot sugary tea, and a bit of conversation. All villages would have one, as a place to meet and talk.

As happens when you live somewhere for a few years, I didn’t take photographs of the most obvious, commonplace things, so I have none of tea shops, or even none of people drinking tea. Except for one photo, the ones posted here are not my own. They were taken by U.S. Peace Corps Volunteers in the 1960s and 1970s (posted on Facebook PC Nepal Photo Project 1962 to1975 by Doug Hall, used with permission). They very much look like the places I knew in the 1990s, in form and spirit. My one photo is of my very first tea stall, on a trek in north-east India in 1985, when what was to become commonplace to me was still fresh enough that I thought to take a photo.

Sharon's first Himalayan tea-stall, in Ladakh, India in 1985

As you walk northwards in Nepal, the land becomes higher, and drier, and the culture more Tibetan. Although the sweet tea is made and is popular in the higher places, they also make a very different kind of tea, one thick with butter and salt. Along the high-altitude border between Tibet and Nepal, the diet is suited to sustaining people through cold winters. Each winter I spent a month or two in a village on the border of Tibet, staying in a 500-year-old home. In the high altitude and snow, we lived mostly on roasted barley and meat, and Tibetan tea, often dozens of small cups a day.

I grew to like the butter and salt-based tea once I started to think of it as soup, not tea. In that environment sweet milk tea is nice, but it just doesn’t “stick to your ribs” the way Tibetan tea does. So Pema showed me how to make it. This tea-soup is made in an upright cylindrical vessel, a churn, a few feet long. I have seen the tea made with leaves, or with chunks of a compressed brick of tea. In both cases the leaves or solid is simmered overnight to create a thick black liquid. This is then churned with butter and salt. In the mountains yak butter is used. The resulting drink is rich and filling, and the fat, I found, even helped protect against chapped lips in winter. The tea is drunk throughout the day, and offered to guests. A good host will top you up after a few sips. At first keeping up with what good manners required felt like an impossible task: how would I ever finish this “tea” that made me a bit queasy? The answer I found was to stop sipping, and then down the entire bowl just as I got up to leave, thus not insulting anyone. Eventually I came to appreciate it, the taste and especially the warming quality in that land without central heating in freezing temperatures.

1980 - Monk churning Tibetan butter-salt tea

Nepal has changed drastically in the past few decades. I’ve returned several times to see the fast expanse of the consumer market and rising expectations along with increased poverty. Teas of all kinds and grades are widely available in smart stores and malls of a kind that just didn’t exist in the 1990s. The humble tea-stalls persist in villages and at roadsides, but are more thinly spaced in Kathmandu. At a Nepali friend’s I’m likely to be offered a choice of “milk tea”… or, perhaps, Earl Grey. Having different teas is a mark of sophistication in that context. Although it’s nice to have choice, it’s oddly a choice of not just the drink, but who I want to be.

Living in Canada I have the same choices, about ‘tea and me’. Lady Baker’s serves up Cha Cha Chai with cow/non-dairy milk options, along with all their other varieties and blends of tea, of the sort that I dreamed of in Nepal back in the 1990s. This is what tea is here, ideally. We don’t want waterbuffalo milk available as an option for our Cha Cha Chai. I doubt anyone has asked for salted yak butter in the tearoom. Even in the cold of Ontario winters, I have a good furnace and hot running water and I don’t need endless butter tea to keep warm. I certainly don’t offer it to my friends, and don’t fill their cups the moment they have taken a sip from them. And, when it comes down to it, insisting they have yak butter tea or waterbuffalo milk would be rightly seen as just as odd as my clinging to my remaining stash of Earl Grey in Nepal was in the 1990s. It just doesn’t “fit’ here, and I don’t even want it to. But I can imagine that if by some magic I could right now have a whiff of milky, spiced tea being boiled on a wood or kerosene stove in a Kathmandu winter I’d be right back there in feeling. Or if by that same magic I could for a moment have the smell of a room in which yak butter has been boiled for centuries, I’d remember not just the idea of that tea, but the feeling of drinking it with people who have drunk it all their lives.

So, “Hello. Have you had tea yet?”



1 comment


How interesting! Thank you for sharing this, Sharon.

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