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A worker pours cups of tea for customers at a restaurant in Islamabad. Photo: AFP

Pakistan loves chai so much, it may need to export green tea to fund its addiction

  • A Pakistan minister has faced backlash for urging the nation’s 220 million people to drink less chai to help reduce imports amid a crumbling economy
  • Since tea was first imported from China in the 18th century, it’s become so embedded in Pakistan, it may need to tap into herbal and green tea to fund its love for chai
Sonia Sarkar
In Pakistan, a good husband is expected to have evening tea with his wife while a good daughter-in-law is expected to master the art of making tea to impress her husband’s family.

Young men use tea as an excuse to hang out with friends late into the night, while women console their girlfriends after a heartbreak over several cups of tea. On the roads, a corrupt traffic guard will let an errant driver go without a fine if the latter pays for his chai-paani (tea and water).

“Tea is an embedded part of our culture, joy and conversations. One cannot take tea away from a Pakistani’s life,” said 31-year-old writer Sadia Khatri in Karachi. “Any time is a good time for tea.”

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Tea is even offered to enemies. In 2019, Pakistan offered a cup to a captured Indian soldier whose plane was shot down by Pakistani forces. After he acknowledged the “tea was fantastic” in a video released by the Pakistani military, memes based on his comment flooded Pakistani social media.

This explained the furore after Pakistan’s Minister for Planning and Development Ahsan Iqbal requested the country to drink less tea to preserve the foreign currency that pays to import the leaves. Pakistan is among the world’s top tea importers, spending about US$600 million annually to satiate the demand of its 220 million people, who each drink an average of four to six cups of tea daily.

Despite a crumbling economy, Pakistanis are not ready to part with chai. Criticising Iqbal’s comments on social media, one person said tea was their “water”, while another questioned why they should cut down on the tea they buy with their own money.

Waiters prepare to serve tea cups to customers at a restaurant in Islamabad on June 15. Photo: AFP

Bilal Channa, a student at the Karachi-based Institute of Business Administration who is researching the history of tea in Pakistan, said even people who wanted to criticise Iqbal or discuss the soaring prices of fuel and power, “will do it while taking sips of tea”. Channa also believes that Pakistan’s love for tea is “nationalistic”, and defines its “identity”.

In many parts of Pakistan, dudh patti – a concoction from boiling milk and tea leaves together – is popular besides the kadak chai that has less milk than water, Channa said.

In Gilgit-Baltistan’s Hunza Valley, salt is added into tea. In Kashmir, the chai, which is pink, is made of salt and baking soda with crushed nuts sprinkled on it.

A Pakistani boy serves tea from a shop in Peshawar. File photo: AP

Seeking alternatives

Actor Usman Peerzada, who owns the aesthetically crafted arthouse Peeru’s Café in Lahore, which offers live Sufi music, suggested turning to herbal tea, as herbs could be grown easily.

Tea researchers said although Pakistan’s domestic production of black tea fails to meet even 1 per cent of the annual demand, its potential to grow good-quality green tea should be tapped.

In 1982, a Chinese team of experts conducting field surveys in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa found traces where tea plants could be grown and helped the government cultivate a tea garden.

After the team confirmed that tea plantations could grow in Mansehra, Battagram, Abbottabad and Malakand in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, varieties of green tea were cultivated and their quality were found to be on a par with China-grown counterparts.

In 1986, Pakistan established the National Tea and High-Value Crops Research Institute (NTHRI) for tea research and plantation.

Abdul Waheed, director of NTHRI, said Pakistan’s high-quality green tea could be produced in large quantities for export and that foreign exchange earned from it could be used to import black tea. “The private sector has not taken up tea cultivation on a sustainable commercial basis. Private-sector brands import tea and blend leaf and dust tea and sell it in their own packs.”

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Colonial influence

Channa explained that by the late 18th century, the British began importing massive amounts of tea to undivided India from China. After looking within its own territories in the Indian subcontinent to cultivate tea since 1774, a Scottish major Robert Bruce in 1823 discovered that the tea plant was indigenous to India’s Assam and could be cultivated for commercial purposes.

Reporter-turned-activist Mahnaz Rahman said the British “encouraged consumption” of tea among the Indians, who initially drank only their indigenous “lassi and sherbet”, by offering them free tea in mobile horse carts. These tea stalls were set up in factories, mines and railway stations, Channa said.

A waiter serves cups of tea to customers at a restaurant in Islamabad. Photo: AFP

According to Channa, it was believed that tea came into “undivided” India via Persians and the Chinese. In west Pakistan’s Balochistan and north Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where Persians left their mark, Pakistanis drink tea in transparent glasses to enjoy the colour of the tea, just as Persians do. In urban or port cities, which were dominated by the British, people drink tea in porcelain cups.

“Tea became a symbol of British-ness and civility in colonial undivided India,” said Channa, adding that people of undivided India adapted to the taste, partially because of their “love affair with their colonial masters”.

For some Pakistanis today, colonial remnants linger over their style of drinking tea. “In some upper-class families, you will see tea-bag chai, served with hot water and milk separately in a trolley,” Khatri said.

Women’s right activist Mahnaz Rahman said that in the past, women in upper-class families needed to learn the etiquette of pouring tea from a teapot to ensure that not a drop of tea fell on the saucer.

When the crush, tear and curl machine was invented in the 1950s, and compacted leaves into small, hard pellets, it became easy for tea vendors to process tea and sell it at low prices, popularising it among masses.

Quetta-based social activist Muhammad Aman said many poor families survived only on tea and bread. Karachi, home to a large number of daily-wage migrant workers, has numerous stalls selling tea at 50 Pakistani rupees, which is less than half a dollar. Although almost all shops in urban areas shut early due to power outages, these tea stalls remain open until midnight.

People drink a cup of tea at a roadside restaurant in Islamabad. Photo: AFP

Khatri, the co-founder of Girls at Dhabas – a feminist movement active between 2015-2019 that sought to reclaim public spaces as ‘sites for everyday leisure and pleasure’ – said many women often posed for photographs with a cup of tea from different dhabas, or roadside stalls, across the country.

“There is an association of patriarchy with men having tea at dhabas because men can typically visit such open public spaces at any time of the day, while women conventionally do not,” she said.

“We built a collective archive on the presence of women in dhabas and other public spaces. Since tea is an integral part of every Pakistani’s life irrespective of gender, the campaign struck a chord with many women.”