Kolkata is brimming with tea, at every level of class and ambience and every variety from basic to classic.
He mops his perspiring brow even as he gulps steaming tea from a disposable cup. “This is what keeps my head cool through the day with customers screaming to be attended to,” says Ranjan Dasgupta, owner of a grocery shop in Ballygunge, Kolkata.
Dasgupta is not alone in his addiction to tea. Tea, Kolkatans swear, is what keeps life ticking. The concept of ‘cha and adda’ (a discussion of social and political events over tea) is intrinsic to the Bengali psyche, and it helps that tea is a very economical drink. Whether it is the cheap tea stalls, the mid-segment kiosks or upmarket tea lounges offering a range of tea varieties, they all appear to be doing brisk business.
Odissi danseuse Kavita Mishra’s favourite haunt is the City Centre Tea Junction. “I often catch moments of togetherness with my husband over a cup of tea here despite our hectic schedules,” she says. Located in the popular Salt Lake mall, the outlet caters to shoppers, youngsters and IT workers from offices in the nearby Sector V. Owned by Ambuja Realty, Tea Junction has opened outlets across the city. Besides kesariya (saffron) tea in kullads (clay cups), they sell snacks like samosas, kachoris and dahi vadas.
The legendary Balwant Singh Eating House on Harish Mukherjee Road sells unique brews priced at Rs 7 and up. Started in 1928, the dhaba has a loyal clientele from every social class. Its speciality is ‘steamed tea’. “We don’t simmer our tea over a flame,” says Lakhwinder Singh at the counter. A blend of Assam and Darjeeling dust tea is tied in cloth and boiling water is poured over it to make the liquor. The liquor is mixed with boiled milk by pouring it back and forth between two mugs. Sugar is added separately. “This tea can never cause acidity,” adds Singh.
For tea drinkers to whom ambience matters, the choices are still many. Besides Assam Company’s Camellia Tea Bars, there is a Kolkata landmark, Dolly’s Tea Shop in the Dakshinapan shopping complex. This 22-year-old tea boutique is owned by tea aficionado Dolly Roy. With decades of experience as a tea taster and auctioneer, she can justly claim to be an authority. Her cosy parlour is outfitted with cane stools, paper lanterns, upturned tea-carton tables and an addictive aroma.
“I serve a niche set of customers whom I often know by name. They love the place this way and refuse any radical changes in the shop,” says Roy, who is immaculately dressed in a crisp Bengal sari. Besides an all-women team of six at the shop and 12 at the warehouse, Roy is at the tea shop in person in the evenings to help her clients select their tea. If you visit you can sit under the outdoor canopy or on the cane stools, while you sip Darjeeling Muscatel, Silver Tips Makaibari or Darjeeling White Tea. You might even find yourself sharing a table with Aparna Sen, Neena Gupta, Om Puri or Rituparno Ghosh — all clients of Roy’s.
You can have your favourite teas packed, to enjoy them at home. Roy claims to have started the trend of gifting fine teas in attractive cloth bags. Despite the success of her tea venture, this connoisseur does not want to franchise it or open other outlets. “I cannot compromise on quality. I want to personally supervise my place. This is my hobby, which is also earning me my bread and butter,” she says with a smile.
If you yearn for a serene afternoon with a book and a cuppa in classy surroundings, head for the Cha Bar inside Oxford Bookstore. Situated on the mezzanine floor with a classic view of Park Street, this tea parlour offers over 90 varieties of tea. Besides the ‘Masala Cha’ and ‘Truck Driver 100 Meel Ki Cha’ (Hundred-Mile Tea), starting from Rs 22, there are flavoured dips, herbal mixes, fruit brews, organic nips, green teas and Ayurvedic blends to choose from. Add a brownie, wrap, quiche or hot dog sourced from the famous Flury’s Tea Room, and your languid afternoon will turn blissful.
(Prakriti Prasad is a Kolkata-based freelance writer)