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A chat with Jeff Koehler – author of Darjeeling, A History of the World’s Greatest Tea


Indians love their tea. Enter any home, corporate office or business in India, and the first thing on offer is tea (OK – coffee in the southern regions). From cutting chai in Mumbai to the sweet, milky tea in dhabas along the Delhi highways, and the lemongrass-mint-ginger tea that each Gujarati household has its own recipe of, tea is available everywhere in India. First thought of as the drink of the Royals, tea has now become the favorite of the common man and India leads the world in tea drinking.

India’s total tea production reached around 1,197.18 million kg in 2014-15. Of this, around 955.82 million kg (79.8 per cent) was produced in North India and 241.36 million kg (20.2 per cent) was produced in South India. While most Indians love their tea with milk and sugar, some swear by the Darjeeling tea…I was introduced to Darjeeling tea in the 1990s by my MBA friends, and it is my tea of choice since then. But I knew precious little about it, its history,and its various flushes till I read Jeff Koehler’s Darjeeling, A History of the World’s Greatest Tea.

Linking the history of tea with India’s colonial past Jeff Koehler’s narrative takes us through the various kinds of Darjeeling teas, the world of ‘planters’ and tea estates, and the problems that economic development have brought to this industry. Read it to know why Darjeeling is still the Champagne of all teas, where you might find the best Darjeeling and what flush may delight your palate!

Jeff Koehler writes mostly about food and travel. He has written four cookbooks and his features appear in many magazines and newspapers, including Saveur, Food & Wine, Gourmet,, EatingWell, the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Atlantic Monthly on-line, Christian Science Monitor, Dwell, Virtuoso Life, Aramco World, Destinasia, and Afar. An article in 2008 won a North American Travel Journalists Association award. And a piece from Tin House was selected for Best Food Writing 2010.For Jeff, food is an ideal subject because writing about it is writing about culture. It is the window through which almost any story can be told!

We caught up with him for a quick chat.

tgbc: Moroccan food to Darjeeling tea! What made you decide to write this wonderful book?
Jeff: After four cookbooks I really wanted to write a different kind of book. I had long been obsessed with Darjeeling. Tea isn’t from there—how did it get there? Why? And why do its gardens produce the world’s finest tea? I set out to answer those questions. But like all good stories, the more I learned, the more time I spent on the gardens, the more complicated it got. And more interesting. It took about two years to research and write.

tgbc: How did you decide on the structure of the book?
Jeff : Breaking it down into four parts, one of each of the “flushes” of harvesting seasons, came naturally. In fact, I wanted to originally subtitle it something like “A History of the Worlds Greatest Tea in Four Flushes.” But of course a few publishers would be keen on using the word “flush” in a food book title.

tgbc: What is your favorite tea?
Jeff : I love first flush Darjeeling—that brilliant golden-green in the cup, very springy.

tgbc:Do you have different teas with different foods ? (For instance, I love to start my day with Darjeeling, but with a heavy North Indian meal, I like the sweet milky tea!
Jeff: I am the same way. Darjeeling is patient and contemplative, and I love it for quiet moments. I crave a good chai when I feeling the need for something energetic and baroque, or to pair with bold flavors.

tgbc: How long did you spend in the tea gardens and what is your favorite memory there?
Jeff: I was nearly two months in India researching the book. Most of that was around Darjeeling. I was able to spend time in the hills during each of the four flushes.

My first memory of Darjeeling, though, goes back to the mid-1990s… a very cold December, sipping tea and just staring out over those waist-high tea shrubs that follow the contours of the hills.

tgbc: The book paints a pretty bleak picture of the conditions and market environment for Darjeeling teas – with the labor, soil conditions and market problems. What do you think needs to be done to help sustain this wonderful tea?
Jeff: I wouldn’t say bleak as much as challenging. The biggest issue is labor. If you can’t get the leaves off the trees, then it becomes irrelevant how great of tea you are making.

tgbc: Are we really trying to hold on to the past with Darjeeling tea, or do you think it has a future as well?
Jeff: Darjeeling has an enormous future. Tea will be the next “big thing.” I can’t help but think it will follow the type of enormous changes that happened with coffee, wine, and beer. The more people learn about tea, the more types of teas they will drink. And eventually they will want to the best—Darjeeling.

tgbc: What are you working on now?
Jeff: A book about coffee. But it is a book “about coffee” as DARJEELING was a book “about tea.”

tgbc: Who are your book mentors (authors you look up to, and are inspired by)?
Jeff: I read a huge amount of non-fiction. Greats like Peter Matthiessen, Bruce Chatwin, and Ryszard Kapuscinski remain endlessly re-readable. I admire Jan Morris for the ability to synthesize material, and Robert McFarlane for his nature writing. But much of my reading for DARJEELING was far more obscure—19th century planters journals, works on mythology and religion (many with titles like “Ecology and Hinduism” or “Sacred Animals of Animal”), tea planting manuals, and the like.

tgbc: What is the one book you wish you had written?
Jeff: Uff! So many. Recently I read Alan Moorehead’s The Blue Nile and Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus. I wish I had written both of them.

tgbc: What is your typical writing day like?
Jeff: I am deep into the new book, so when I am not travelling and am at home in Barcelona I am working all day long. I am up by about 6:30 and work until I walk my youngest daughter to school at 9:00. I then work in a café or two and get back home around noon. I am at my desk or the big table in the living room until it is time to pick her up from volleyball or dance, around 6:00. I prepare dinner and then in the evening I try to work another hour or so.


About Preeti Singh

I am a bookaholic. I love stories, storytelling. I enjoy helping people structure their storytelling, and I love to share the stories I discover.

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