“I ordered a cup of tea, and the owner brought over three cups of tea on a tray,” recalled Sydney Frymire. “He explained that the cups highlighted the different strengths of tea from the pot: top, middle, and bottom.” This was one of the tea, cultural, and travel experiences from Nepal that Sydney shared with a group at a recent tea-tasting event at Zen Tara Tea. The leader of an annual trekking and volunteer tourism trip to Nepal, her insights provided wonderful background stories and interesting points of discussion as we sat around a table tasting multiple infusions of Nepal teas.
For many at the table, this was their first experience trying a tea from Nepal and while the teas were not unfamiliar due to their taste profile, which echoes that of Darjeeling teas, they had a distinctive quality that stood on its own. Certainly, the conversation and slide show of images from Kathmandu, a local village school, and trekking along the Annapurna Range of the Himalayas added a richness that enhanced the tea-drinking experience for those new to these teas.
The teas themselves were from late-season 2012 orthodox tea harvests from the Jun Chiyabari tea garden in Nepal. The dry leaf was a twisted leaf with a light floral aroma and, when infused, released the honey/muscatel notes familiar to Darjeeling tea drinkers. Previously considered a value tea in comparison to the prices fetched by Darjeelings, the quality of Nepal orthodox teas over the past couple of years has improved considerably and the price has crept up accordingly. The tea industry in Nepal has faced challenges in maturing to its full potential, transitioning from mostly government-owned tea gardens to more private-sector ownership with outside investments in tea production and processing. While segments of the tea industry have focused on organic tea-growing practices, the much larger category of CTC tea production is dependent on the use of high levels of fertilizers and pesticides and there is increasing tension over these practices and the exporting of these teas, particularly to neighboring India.
While a tea-tasting event is naturally focused on the tea itself, Sydney was able to bring the group out of our tea-induced fog to appreciate the wider context of the role of tea in Nepal, the lives it touches, and the spirit of the people she has enjoyed on her trips to Nepal. Later in the day, a few of us gathered for dinner at Shangri-La, an appropriately name Nepalese restaurant a few blocks from the tea shop. As with the teas, much of the Nepalese food at the restaurant was familiar by association with flavors and spices from Indian dishes. The owner proudly pointed out the distinctions and we happily agreed to selections that were more authentically Nepalese. As the food was being prepared, we marveled at the way a simple cup of tea can take us on a journey. While we physically never left Bethesda, Maryland, the aromas and tastes of the Nepal teas we sampled took us to Kathmandu, snow-covered majestic peaks, and Shangri-La, all in one day.