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Tea, Spatchcock Chicken And Other Wholesome Foods

Rajen Bali

This is about the food favored by the tea planters in Assam, the Dooars, Darjeeling and South India. I am trying to share my experiences and impressions about food enjoyed through the gracious hospitality of my planter friends in their homes and in a number of planters clubs.

My love affair with Tea, Tea Country, Tea Planters and their way of life had a serious start in the early 1960s. Before that, all I knew was that my family always drank and enjoyed the flavor and taste of Lipton’s Green Label Tea. For a change, there was also the odd packet of the more expensive Lopchu Tea.

I did have a little knowledge of the Tea Country, having grown up in Dharamsala and having visited tea estates in Kangra, Palampur and later in Dehra Dun and the Nilgiris. With its super-abundance of natural scenic beauty I had thoroughly enjoyed my short-time visits to various destinations in India’s Tea Country. At one time, I may have even thought of a life in Tea, but my desire to become an aviator was much stronger and did govern the course of my life.

My first serious encounter with the Tea People and their way of life – including their food – was a meal in the Thakurbari Planters Club in Assam, in 1963. My hosts were an illustrious planter, the late Partu Kaula and his gracious wife. They not only gave me a superb meal − I still remember the excellent Mushroom Soup, Roast Chicken and Caramel Custard – but also sort of ‘adopted’ me. They introduced me to quite a few other planters. It was through these good people that I had my first opportunity to have a close look at their food and their lifestyle.

Since there was quite a lot in common in their thinking/living and mine, there was an almost instant understanding, bonding and appreciation.

A Bit of Early Tea History?

“You find Scotsmen everywhere. In those troubled times, there was one in Assam, a Robert Bruce, later Major of Bengal Artillery and at that time trading on his own. He seems to be a non-hero of romance who mixed himself quite freely in all factions that were going on, entirely for his own advantage. He fought with one party, changed sides, fought again – possibly made money, certainly lived as suited him. This rough, tough, adventurer made friends with a Singpho chief (Bisa Gham?) in 1823 and learned about a primitive form of tea production from indigenous plants which was then the normal beverage of these people. Thus was the Assam variety of the tea plant ‘Camelia Sinesis Var Assamica’ discovered? However the Singphos are said to have known and drunk tea long before the Englishmen discovered it. So, herein lies the roots of the strong teas known for their briskness, body, bright color and malty flavor. On the tea plantation food-and-beverage scene, whatever else may have changed, the pride in – and − the appreciation of the Assam Teas served in the homes of the planters and their clubs has remained unchanged.

As an aside, I too was fortunate to make friends with the Singphos and their king and to enjoy their hospitality. The tea they served was of a ‘different’ kind. Made with a slice off a ‘tea cake’ preserved in a bamboo cylinder, It had a smoky flavor and a distinctive taste. The meal that was served had the only preparation made with cane-shoots that I have ever tasted.

Other Singpho nuggets were the tales of the use of monkeys for plucking tea leaves and that tea leave plucking required that the plucker be riding an elephant. Whether the tea was really plucked by monkeys – or, was it just a marketing ploy – I did come across mentions of monkey-plucked tea in Chinese legends. Since I had seen only feet-high, trimmed, tea bushes, having to ride an elephant to pluck tea leaves appeared very far-fetched. But, a visit to the Tocklai Tea Research Institute showed that tea bush – if left unattended – can grow into a tree several meters high! So maybe the Singphos did require elephants to pluck tea leaves.

Soon after Robert Bruce’s meeting with the Singpho chief and his ‘discovering’ Assam Tea, he died. However, before he died, Robert Bruce had tipped off his younger brother, Charles Alexander Bruce, of the existence of large tracts of tea trees growing wild in the upper regions of Assam.

Sometime later, Lord William Bentick, the Governor-General of India, formulated a ‘Tea Committee’ to research the possibility of growing tea in Assam and appointed CA Bruce as the ‘Superintendent of Tea Culture’, at a stipend of Rs 150 per annum. By 1838, the first consignment of 12 tea chests of Assam Tea had reached London. The rest, as they say, is history.

Later on, tea was also grown in the Darjeeling area and in South India.

Among the earliest tea planters in India were many Scotsmen, Englishmen and some other Europeans. In due course of time, Indians too made their way in to this world. The planter led a very hard, lonely life in inhospitable environment. So, nourishing food, strong spirituous ‘support’, compatible company and sports became vital essentials. Thus the clubs had a vital role to fulfil these requirements. As a compensation for the very hard life, the Planter was also given good living in spacious bungalows with servants.

The food that they ate was the domain of their generally-excellent cooks and if they were married, their wives.

Breakfast was a very important, huge, meal indeed. It was quite simple really. Generally, loads of toast, butter, jam, eggs-to-order and fruit. At a much later stage, Puri-Alu also made it to the breakfast table.

From the beginning, the food – generally in Western style – was of rather simple and wholesome kind, tailored to make the Planter feel as much ‘at home’ as possible. In the early days, perhaps, the most in-demand must have been the ‘Moorgiewalla’, the man who supplied chicken bought from surrounding villages.

 “Traditionally, it was chicken in many forms – cutlets, steaks, minced, roasted, boiled, curried, in soup, on toast, fried, devilled...” And, Spatchcock.

Before we come to this Spatchcock, let us deal with the others.

When it comes to Roast Chicken and Chicken Cutlets, I must admit that the best of these I have tasted were in Various Planters Clubs in Assam and Darjeeling, in the homes of Planter-friends and in Army Messes. Since – till not so long ago – only Desi Moorgies were being used, the taste-and-texture of these was even better than what I tasted while living in England and the United States.

These chicken dishes were often provided a variation with Jungle Fowl, Pigeons and other game birds, till shikar was banned.

A highlight of the Chicken-menus of the Planters has to be the Spatchcock Chicken, which I have been fortunate to have a few times, in the homes of Planter-friends. ‘Spatchcock’ is said to be rooted in “Despatch the cock” and refers to the summary way of grilling a bird after splitting it open down the back and spreading the two halves flat. The difference between this and the normal way of grilling is in the shorter time that it takes and the more even grilling of all parts of the chicken.

Mutton did not appear to be as popular as chicken. But freshly caught fish were often on the table.

Other food on the home/club tables included dishes like Shepherds Pie, Roasts, Grills and Bakes. The popular desserts were the traditional ones like Bread and Butter Pudding, Caramel Custard and Trifles.

Baking bread was another common practice and I tasted some excellent home-made breads over the years.

Even the Scots and the Brits could not help but fall under the magical spell of the curries and the kebabs. A very popular curry was the Country Captain Chicken Curry. I have had some excellent versions made by my friends’ cooks. Other popular curries included Kofta Curry and Mutton Keema dishes. The curries were supplemented with a variety of chutneys. Rice and Indian breads too made early deep inroads. A matter of special mention is the good taste of the vegetables, often grown in own kitchen gardens.

With the foreigners in tea plantations being increasingly replaced by a new breed of planters and owners, life in the Tea Country – naturally − kept on changing rather rapidly with more and more Indian food coming on the table. But some of the ‘good old’ still survives.

Not so long ago, my dear friend Raj Basu of Help Tourism took me on a visit to Dam Dim Tea Estate, being promoted as a tourist facility. The simple lunch had the best mutton curry I have eaten in years, with that elusive, ‘real’ taste-and-texture which has all but disappeared. I had to shake the hand of experienced cook Ali, and reward him.

Similarly, I had the ‘strange’ experience of eating some of the best Naan that I have ever eaten in my life in a restaurant in Tezpur. Also on the table was a dish of superb Nargisi Koftas. The chef was an ex-planters’ club cook! May more such islands of fast disappearing culinary excellence survive and can still be found.