Nepal is a tea drinker’s paradise, and a good cup of chiya – sweet milk tea – is hard to resist. Enter a Nepali home and before you can say ‘namaste’ and take off your coat, a steaming cup of chiya will have already been placed in front of you. It is a tradition in most areas of Nepal to serve guests with hot tea to show hospitality, and to warmly welcome you to their home. Tea is so important that people greet one another by saying ‘chiya khayo’, which means ‘have you drunk tea?’ If you haven’t then you had better hurry to one of the tea shops found all over the country and sit down with a nice cuppa.
I love sitting in a traditional tea shop watching tea being prepared over a small wood fire or on a stove. Black tea, milk and sugar are mixed in a kettle and left to boil. It is then strained before being served. For as little as 10 cents, customers will have a chiya in hand, and many a discussion about politics will follow. The tea shop plays a significant role in daily life as a place to socialise, as well as a place to catch up on the latest news and gossip.
Mahesh Maharjan from Bhaktapur is a teacher by profession and runs a chiyapasal – a modest tea shop. He operates it from his family kitchen and opens only in the mornings and evenings. Mahesh says that most tea comes from Ilam.
The Nepali culture of growing tea in Ilam, eastern Nepal, was started in 1873 by Colonel Gajraj Singh Thapa, the son-in-law of the Prime Minister. After a visit to Darjeeling in India he was so impressed with the tea he drank there, that he started growing it in Ilam – a trend that has continued to this day. Nowadays, tea is the national drink and is consumed all day, every day. Mahesh told me that although chiya can be served black, it is mostly served with milk and sugar, or spiced with either ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, or even black pepper.
Teashops not only serve tea, but also khaja – both sweet and savoury snacks. Mahesh says with pride: ‘we make delicious pakodas. Potatoes, onions and spices are mixed and covered with a batter of flour and water. Then they are deep fried’. The beautiful yellow colour comes from the turmeric. These delicious and cheap snacks are popular with locals and tourists alike.
Visiting a tea shop is as much of a travel experience as visiting a famous temple, or maybe even more so, as the tea shop is a showcase of tradition and culture. People from all walks of life visit tea shops: vendors come in for a quick tea before setting up their stalls and girls wearing school uniforms huddle around the table after school. Locals are friendly and often invite me over to their table for a tea and a chat. In the corner, elderly men with too much time on their hands discuss politics with as much heat as the steam rising from their cups of tea.
My mornings in Nepal always started with a stop at my favourite tea shop, where I ordered a chiya, a jerry (a sweet snack) and aaloo ko achar (a spicy potato dish). Jerry, one of the most common sweets in Nepal, is a deep-fried, pretzel shaped yellow-orange loop dipped in syrup (the Nepali version of what is called a ‘jalebi’ in India). Locals take two swarees (a Newari snack that looks like a chapatti) and put the jerry in between. I figure they do this for a very good reason – to keep their fingers clean. When I ate my favourite combination – chiya, jerry and aaloo – I was left with extremely sticky fingers. Despite this, my traditional Nepali tea shop visits were the perfect way to start my days in Nepal.
Article by Ira de Reuver. Photos by Pranav Joshi.