February 25th, 2010

How to Flavor Tea

There's a small grocery store a few blocks from our house, I think it is adjacent to the Little Island Cafe, that specializes in Mediterranean/Middle Eastern food. It's a very small shop, selling beans and rice, rosewater and lamb, and trays of baklava. The last time we stopped in, I bought some tea--I didn't expect much of it, as it was only $2 for 14 oz. (substantially cheaper than the $24/lb. for the organic English breakfast tea I'd previously ordered online).

It wasn't bad--not the greatest, but I was willing to sacrifice for the price. It becomes bitter if it is steeped too long, so I try to give it only 3-4 minutes instead of the usual 5.

Shahrzad - Pure Indian Barooti Tea

Yesterday I returned to buy more, and the exchange I had was quite humorous. The cashier, whose skin tone was much darker than I would expect for an Arab (possibly he was South Asian), looked extremely bored, barely even looked up when I came in. I grabbed a box of tea and brought it to the counter. He looked it over and didn't find a price. He consulted a price list, and apparently didn't find it there either.

"Hey, how much is this tea?" he asks.

A man who I assume is the store/cafe owner appears. He sports a neatly-trimmed white beard. He is much paler by comparison, barely more color than I have, but still noticeably ethnic. He is very animated, and extraordinarily cheerful. "$1.99" he says. Then, taking notice of me, he says, "You know what you should do? Add some mint to this. It is very good." He grabs a Styrofoam cup and fills it halfway from a nearby urn, and hands it to me. "Try this."

The sample tea was very sweet, and very minty. It was a welcome gift, particularly as I was feeling a bit cold and under-the-weather. "That is good," I said, "how much mint would you put in a pot of tea?"

"Oh, however much. Until it tastes right."

"I will definitely try it!" I told him.

As I pay for the tea, the cashier, without changing expression, his lips barely moving, says "Or you could try cinnamon. And some clove. That is how I like it. Cinnamon and some cloves."


I did try the mint tea. No matter how much mint I added, it still wasn't as minty, and no matter how much sugar, it still wasn't as sweet as the sample. well_lahdidah doesn't like mint tea, so I guess I'll go with the chai recipe instead (although I've been using cardamom, black peppercorns, and cloves, I think cinnamon would be a nice addition).

The stark contrast between the two men--light & dark, animated & lethargic, gregarious & laconic--was part of the amusement. But I was also amused: what was it about me, dropping by to spend a measly $2, that merited so much attention, and so much advice on how to flavor tea? Did they think I was a clueless tea novice who needed guidance, or did they think I was a connoisseur with whom they wanted to share their personal secrets?

I don't know, but I think next time I'll get some baklava, too.