Canadian Peggy Carswell Keeps Phalap Brewing

MERGHERITA, Assam

Photo by Pullock Dutta

A sip of this golden orange color hot brew would fill your mouth with the smoky taste of a slightly bitter strong liquor. And after a round or two of the “not my cup of tea”, a feeling of rejuvenation runs through your body.

Welcome to the world of phalap, an exotic variety of hand-made natural tea which is available only at the land of the Singphos, a tribe which is credited with the discovery of tea in Assam.

They are also believed to be the first tea drinkers in India.

Pha—what, lap-leaf, is a Singpho word.

There is a belief among the tribesmen that two Singpho brothers felt hungry while on a hunting trip inside the jungle. One of the brothers plucked a few leaves of a plant which grew wild in those days and started chewing it.

He felt relieved from hunger and his body started feeling better. He asked his brother to eat the leaves of the particular plant. His brother asked him pha (what) lap (leaf).  Since then the mysterious plant – the tea plant which grew wild then — has found a place of worship among the Singphos.

History has it that Bisa Gam, the chief of the bias clan of the Singphos, first introduced the tea plant to Englishman Robert Bruce in 1823. The rest, as they say, is history as Assam became known to the world for its tea.

Tea experts say that if Bisa Gam is credited with the discovery of tea in Assam, it was Nigro La, another Singpho tribe chief, who undertook the first tea cultivation by a native on behalf of the British. Some of the Nigro La clan of the Singphos migrated to new areas with passage of time, which is now in Arunachal Pradesh, nerghbouring Assam.

Today, there are nearly 15 Singhpo families concentrated in Piyong village in Namsai in Arunachal Pradesh who are also keeping the tradition of making phalap alive, like their comrades in Ketetong in Assam’s easternmost Tinsukia district.

Ningro La’s assistance was first sought by the British for locating wild tea-growing areas in the vast forests of Assam. He was prevailed upon to cultivate tea and he consented to the plan provided the government helped. The British helped Ningro La with money and expertise and he brought extensive areas under tea plantation. His produce, amounting to £480 ($633.94 USD), was first sold in the Calcutta market in 1840.

Photo by Pullock Dutta

“It is believed that Ningro La also manufactured some tea out of the 35 chests manufactured by the Singpho chiefs among the 130 chests (total produce in 1840) during the first tea auction by the East India Company (EIC) in Calcutta in March 1841,” said Pradip Baruah, senior scientist at the Tocklai Tea Research Institute, who has done extensive research on the history of tea in Assam.

But then that is history.

“Making tea is our culture and tradition… we worship tea and every household of a Singpho tribe has a kitchen garden where we plant tea,” said Manje La, a descendent of Ningro La.

He was talking to World Tea News at his residence at Ketetong village here, which he has converted into a tourist lodge to house numerous visitors from all around the world, keen to know more about phalap.

The other day, a group from Korea had stayed at Ketetong for two days.

Phalap would have become lost in time or would have remained confined to a handful of Singpho tribesmen — who got fragmented over the years – had it not been for a lady from Canada — Peggy Carswell who represented an organization called Fertile Ground.

“We will give full credit to Peggy for helping us keep our tradition alive… had it not been for her many Singphos would have given up tea cultivation in the traditional way in these days of competition. We are still natural tea makers and never use any chemicals in the tea plant,” Manje La said.

Carswell, Manje La said, had first visited Mergherita in 2000 and showed keen interest in the unique variety of tea and convinced the Singphos to keep up the good work of making traditional tea, without using chemicals.

“At that time, a few of our tribesmen were taking up commercial cultivation of tea by using chemicals to keep pace with the changing world but she convinced us not to use chemicals and carry along the way it is..” he said.

Photo by Pullock Dutta

Though few of the Singphos, be it in Assam or Arunachal Pradesh, did take up commercial cultivation of tea, the majority remained convinced with Peggy and are still making phalap.

Carswell has become a frequent visitor to Singpho land and is helping introduce phalap to the world. “She strongly believes that these are future teas and there would be a great demand for phalap one day,” Manje La said.

There is however, a problem.

“This is totally a handmade product and it takes nearly two months for the entire process.. if at all there is demand for our produce we cannot meet it,” Manje La said.

Manje la, on his own, produces about 400 kilograms of phalap a year. And Ketetong, which has around 100 Singpho families, produce only about 1000 kilograms.

“We are confined to a few regular buyers who are getting addicted to phalap… we are supplying them regularly,” he said.

The Singphos process their tea by heating the leaves in a metal pan until they brown, and then sun-dry them for a few days.

The sun-dried leaves are tightly packed in cylindrical containers made of bamboo and smoked over a fire. After weeks of storage, the processed tea hardens to take the shape of the tube. It can then be preserved for up to several years, with small portions sliced off with a knife to brew a fresh cup of tea.

Phalap is usually served with a piece of jaggery (gur).

According to Rajesh Singpho, another small tea grower of the Singpho tribe, the tea’s organic production and traditional processing retains its medicinal value. “The Singphos believe that a cup of phalap after every meal aids digestion, and believe it has kept the community relatively free from cancer and diabetes,” he said.

Like Manje La, Rajesh, who visited Canada to take part in the Canadian Coffee & Tea Expo in 2006, also credits Carswell for popularizing Singpho tea leading to “individual buyers from Canada and Japan,” he said.

Rajesh produces about 500 kilograms of phalap a year, which is the largest by any individual Singpho tea planter.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article named incorrectly identified Rajesh Singpho.