Sauni, euta chiya

Food Issue 127 Jun, 2012
Text by Niraj Karki

An integral cultural element in Nepal, tea is an unrecognized, often taken for granted part of our lives.

Were it coffee instead of tea that people drank in Nepal so religiously, AMTs and Starbucks, if opened would do extremely well here. Nepal, with tea producing places like Illam, however, is a tea country. The best teashops in Kathmandu have neither Darjeeling, Assam, Ceylon nor Earl Grey on their menus – actually, they don’t have menus at all. They don’t have herbal, fruit or green teas either, although lemon teas are available (not iced ones though).

These teashops serve chiya – the humble cup (or as it usually served in - glass) of tea. These modest places are scattered across Kathmandu and miss mention in guidebooks because there is nothing touristy about them although, the many conversations that happen here over glasses of tea and small eats probably reflect the truest picture of Nepal. A world of their own, with no fancy crockery, they are like havens almost, refuges from the smaller worries of everyday.

It is only a matter of water, sugar, tealeaves, milk and the occasional spices. That is all it takes to make chiya – best when drunk with good company anywhere. Tea is a focal point for gatherings in many cultures and Nepal is no exception. Parties and get-togethers certainly revolve around alcohol, as do occasions when people want something special. For everyday things however, for all that is important but not celebrated, the unrecognized hero, the thing we all consume, love, cannot do without and yet take entirely for granted – is tea, a simple cup of tea.

It is no wonder that there are tea breaks. Tea is as synonymous with enjoying the little moments in life as can be. An excuse for a conversation, taste, flavour and warmth at the end of a long tiring day and a definite lifesaver in the cold of winter – tea is a wonder in more ways than one. Part of being Nepali is the inherent longing for tea even in the summer.

In the same way that tea is a part of our lives, teashops are an important cultural element in Nepal. Throughout the changes that Kathmandu and Nepal have seen, teashops have persevered – they stand by the road, the little shop tucked away in the corner or one of the numerous cafés in front of colleges and offices.

With so many restaurants, bars and cafés around, it is easy to forget the joys of tea. It doesn’t take much to remember it though, watch people drink a cup of tea - labourers, workers and officials sipping tea during the breaks or better still, drink a cup of tea in the evening, around dusk when the city takes its first few restful breaths. Drink a cup of tea in one of the many squares – in Patan, Bhaktapur or the Kathmandu Durbar Square and take in the surroundings. In so many ways it is like a journey back into time. The courtyards, the squares – they were places for people to come together and share their days and conversations – all over simple cups of tea.