Pakistan’s Minister for Planning and Development, Ahsan Iqbal, recently suggested that Pakistanis should cut back on their tea consumption to help reduce tea imports and preserve foreign currency. However, his comments were met with fierce backlash on social media. Tea is deeply ingrained in Pakistan’s culture, with daily tea consumption averaging four to six cups per person, and its consumption is tied to various social activities and rituals.
Tea’s Role in Pakistani Culture
Tea has become a staple in Pakistan since its introduction from China in the 18th century. It is an essential part of daily life and is often used as a tool for social bonding. In many households, a good husband is expected to have evening tea with his wife, and 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 over several cups of tea after a heartbreak. Tea is also an offering of hospitality, even to enemies, as evidenced by Pakistan offering a cup to a captured Indian soldier in 2019.
Resistance to Change
Despite a struggling economy and the minister’s suggestion to reduce tea consumption, Pakistanis are reluctant to give up their beloved chai. Criticizing the suggestion, many argue that tea is an essential part of their lives and culture. In fact, some see tea consumption as a symbol of their national identity. Tea in Pakistan comes in many forms, such as dudh patti, which is boiled milk and tea leaves, and kadak chai, which has less milk than water. Tea varieties are also regionally specific, such as pink tea made of salt and baking soda with crushed nuts sprinkled on it in Kashmir.
Exploring alternatives to reduce tea imports in Pakistan
As Pakistan struggles with its dependence on imported black tea, some are suggesting alternatives. Usman Peerzada, who owns the popular Peeru’s Café in Lahore, has proposed turning to herbal tea, which can be grown easily. Meanwhile, tea researchers argue that Pakistan’s potential for growing good-quality green tea should be explored.
Back in 1982, a Chinese team of experts identified areas in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region where tea plants could be grown. After the government cultivated a tea garden in places like Mansehra, Battagram, Abbottabad, and Malakand, varieties of green tea were produced that were found to be on par with China-grown teas. Pakistan established the National Tea and High-Value Crops Research Institute in 1986 to further research and develop its tea industry.
According to Abdul Waheed, the institute’s director, Pakistan could produce large quantities of high-quality green tea for export, using the foreign exchange earnings to import black tea. However, the private sector has not yet taken up tea cultivation on a sustainable commercial basis. Instead, private brands import tea and blend leaf and dust tea before selling it in their own packaging.
The Colonial Influence on Tea Culture in Pakistan
In the late 18th century, the British began importing massive amounts of tea to undivided India from China. Later, Scottish major Robert Bruce discovered that the tea plant was indigenous to India’s Assam and could be cultivated for commercial purposes. The British encouraged tea consumption among the Indians by offering them free tea in mobile horse carts. Tea stalls were set up in factories, mines, and railway stations, and tea became a symbol of British-ness and civility in colonial undivided India.
Today, colonial remnants still linger over Pakistan’s tea culture, with some upper-class families serving tea-bag chai in a trolley and women in upper-class families learning the etiquette of pouring tea from a teapot. The popularity of tea in Pakistan increased with the invention of the crush, tear and curl machine, which compacted leaves into small, hard pellets, making it easy for tea vendors to process tea and sell it at low prices. Tea stalls remain open until midnight, providing sustenance for many poor families.
Despite the association of patriarchy with men having tea at dhabas (roadside stalls), tea is an integral part of every Pakistani’s life irrespective of gender.