India is famous for its tea, but few people know about hatey chai, or handmade tea. Hatey chai comes from the same stock of Darjeeling tea, which is today a combination of Camellia sinensis var. sinensis and Camellia sinesnsis var. assamica. Tea has become part of the agroecosystem of the Darjeeling Hills and is primarily produced for home and local consumption. Tea in the local agroecosystem is grown amongst a host of other crops like ginger, potatoes, peas, beans, leafy greens, and mandarins. Tea has also become part of the agroforestry system and grows in the so-called “private forests,” or forests that do not come under the Forest Department and are managed by families and communities. Tea was brought into the Darjeeling Hills by the British from China from the 1850s onward. It spread rapidly as a plantation crop. Some of the crop was adopted by farmers of Darjeeling as part of their agroecology. This means hatey chai comes from a complex agroecosystem that has evolved over the years, and this innate diversity makes it more resilient. Hatey chai tea stands out when compared to the better-known Darjeeling tea, even though it is made from the same species. Darjeeling tea is mostly factory-produced from large monoculture plantations set up during the British colonial era. The greenery of tea plantations cannot be confused with the complex agroforest ecology of the Darjeeling Hills.
To make hatey chai, tender tea buds and leaves are handpicked starding in February and March (depending on elevation), and hand rolled to break apart the tea buds, exposing the tannins and beginning oxidation. The producers’ experience and knowledge dictates when this process is stopped, and the tea bundled and placed above a wood-burning fireplace overnight. The rolled tea begins to ferment and takes on a typical smoky flavor. The tea is then sun dried and sometimes roasted to stop the fermentation process. Since hatey chai is dependent on sun for drying, most families make it before or after monsoon season (usually from late May to late September). Processing can also be done in October or November, but most communities make hatey chai only before the monsoons.
Hatey chai is an everyday drink for the residents of rural Darjeeling, usually consumed with milk and sugar, and sometimes also with salt. It is made both for home consumption and informal local sales. With the increased production of industrially processed, monoculture Darjeeling tea and protection of this industry, hatey chai finds itself on the fringes of the industry. For example, it cannot be labeled with a Geographic Indication label, despite being a product of the Darjeeling Hills.