Flower in a teapot

Shabnam Minwalla | Updated on January 11, 2018

Brew a plot: Once associated with the geriatrics, herbal tea is now consumed and promoted by glossy supermodels   -  Shutterstock/Dasytnik

Herbal tea — caffeine-free decoctions made from roots and flowers, fruits and leaves — has admirers among unyielding chai drinkers

I’m just back from a long trip to Croatia and Hungary. So I should be writing about Mediterranean tomatoes on the vine and sumptuous nectarines. Or rich goulashes and wicked Esterházy torte, made with five layers of meringue and vanilla buttercream. Or the street-side chimney cake stalls that sprinkle the air of Budapest with cinnamon and sugar.

Sadly, those delicacies are impossible to carry home — which means getting reacquainted with the chemical-laced squidges that go by the name of tomatoes in Mumbai. And to admit that I will never be adventurous enough to chop up an octopus salad.

Still, there’s one favourite item that’s easy to bring back. It’s light, doesn’t ooze oil and doesn’t involve a detour through the red channel. After all, not even the most killjoy customs officer can possibly have a problem with a box of lavender tea. Or a vanilla blackcurrant brew. Or a forest berry tisane.

Whenever we travel, we spend an inordinate amount of time at supermarkets. Not buying so much as gawking. My daughters examine the cookies and marshmallows, and drool over some forbidden sweets in day-glo pink and green. Meanwhile I sneak off to the tea and coffee aisle, where I go a bit wonky over herbal goodies. After all, they smell so glorious, sound so tempting and even help you lose weight! They promise everything short of eternal youth and world peace. And though I’ve learnt that lemon raspberry tea is not the answer to all of life’s problems, perhaps elderberry is.

This time around, I’ve brought back a box of hibiscus tea that will hopefully mimic the tart crimson drink served in every corner of Cairo. (And, at the same time, lower cholesterol and blood pressure.) Some rosehip tea, made from the little red fruit of the rose plant, that always makes me think of good witches with gleaming cauldrons and scrubbed cottages. (And, at the same time, is good for the heart and skin, and prevents cancer.) A few samplers of citrus, lavender and forest berry teas. And a strawberry-raspberry that possibly sounds better than it actually tastes.

But then herbal teas are not really about taste. They are about aromas and comfort. They are about that smug glow when you read the long list of health benefits. And about clever marketing!

Mind you, herbal teas are no magic potions. They are caffeine-free decoctions made from dried roots and flowers, fruits, leaves and seeds. And although they were once associated with old ladies in woolly cardigans, they are now being sipped and promoted by glossy supermodels and tattered-denim trendsetters.

I first strayed into the aromatic realm of herbal teas with reluctance. A friend from the UK was visiting and had brought her stash — a box of orange ginger tea (great for digestion, gastric pains, cramps) and another of peppermint (stress-buster, good for digestion and immunity). “Taste them,” she urged, as I sipped my strong chai and shuddered at the thought of these wimpy brews.

Months later, when cleaning out my kitchen cupboards, I found a few remaining peppermint teabags and popped one into a mug of steaming water. The first sip was flat. The second held the promise of peppermint. The third was nice in a toothpaste sort of way. By the last sip I had read the literature and was feeling soothed and strong and virtuous.

The teabags were soon done and I returned to routine. Other than the ritual cup of Turkish apple tea during our book club meetings at Tea Centre, I stuck to my kick-me-awake chai. Then perhaps a decade later, in London, the same friend led me down the aisles of Sainsbury’s. I emerged with five boxes of herbal tea and a new appreciation for human creativity.

Think about it. There’s sakura tea, made from dried cherry blossoms, that unfurl prettily when steeped in hot water. And bacon tea for the hardcore carnivorous. There’s crazy bitch tea, which is meant to cheer up women who are feeling stressed and moody. And purple youth to help you stay young.

Back in Mumbai, I started experimenting. The rooibos and vanilla blend (bought as a tribute to Precious Ramotswe — that No 1 Ladies’ Detective of Botswana) languished in the cupboard till the bugs got to it. A couple of fancy fruity combinations were fun while they lasted. But the unexpected star of this tea ceremony was chamomile.

Chamomile tea is made with white-and-yellow flowers, a lot like daisies. The tea is as cosy as fluffy socks — and great for relaxation and a good night’s sleep. One sip and I had to get hold of this infusion in Mumbai. I checked online. I called gourmet and health food shops. But only managed to find expensive, foreign brands.

Then one day I popped into Bhavya Stores — just down the road — for a box of cereal. And there, right in front of my eyes, were three boxes of chamomile tea. Affordable. Made by an Indian company.

I bought out Bhavya Stores and then found the company online. Soon my daughters joined the chamomile club. Though they quite enjoy forays into strawberry and cream, and apple cranberry teas as well.

Meanwhile, my latest shopping trip in Croatia has yielded a spectacular new discovery. Vanilla green tea. Which means I have a new quest at hand.

Should I pop into Bhavya Stores again?

Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and the author of The Strange Haunting of Model High School and The Shy Supergirl

Published on July 28, 2017

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