Sha Shiahkrot

Ark of taste
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Sha Shiahkrot’s (Smilax ferox) literally means “tea from the thorny plant.” It is an indigenous tea preparation from the root of a wild plant that is found in the forest of Meghalaya in northeast India. The roots are bright red on the inside and brown on the outside, and are rough, irregularly shaped and slightly hairy. While the average size of the roots is about 1 meter in length and 3 centimeters in thickness, some claim that much longer roots of up to 3 meters have been found in some parts of the forest. Furthermore, one single shiahkrot plant can bear up to 10 of such roots that supply the plant with rich nutrients and medicinal properties.   The tea itself makes an infusion that is brownish red in color, similar to roiboos tea. The taste of the tea is described by locals as refreshing and aromatic, unique in its soothing spiced but mild flavor. Though considered a medicinal plant, it does have a strong or bitter taste, but is instead slightly sweet and fruity. Local farmers distinguish between two varieties called baheh and barit, meaning “big one” and “small one.” Apart from being used in its pure form, the root is also mixed with ginger to make a tasty hot beverage. This is a new idea that has come up in recent food festivals that have been held in order to revitalize some forgotten foods like sha shiahkrot and a local ginger variety called sying bah. More importantly, shiakrot is a medicinal plant that has long been used by herbal practitioners to cure various stomach troubles thanks to its antibacterial properties. For the same reasons, mothers apply shiakrot to the navel of newborn babies to prevent bacterial infections.   Though shiahkrot is available throughout the whole year, indigenous farmers prefer to collect it in the month of October when the roots are found in abundance. The best location for finding shiahkrot is close to riversides, preferably on steep slopes. In the east Khasi hills, shiahkrot is also found plentifully amidst the rich biodiversity of the sacred forest law kyntang bniah. However, traditional belief restricts the collection of plants from these forests for protecting the cultural landscapes and dignifying the spirits that are believed to still be present in these protected areas. In those areas where it is permitted to collect the plant, the collector can use a traditional tool called the lyngka, a piece of iron with a sharpened top that allows cutting even through hard soil. In case such a tool is not handy at the time of collection, one can also use the twigs carved into a sharp tool.   Harvesting the roots is a very decisive moment, as the collector has to carefully extract only the amount of the root that he requires and leaves the remaining bit in the soil in order to ensure that plant will not die off, but remain to grow for future generations. After being washed and dried, the roots are stored inside the house in a bamboo basket (ka shang) and preferably transferred to a particular bamboo board that hangs in suspension above the fireplace in traditional houses. This closeness to the smoke preserves the root naturally as no molds or other fungi can grow. Presumably, this storage also gives the tea its subtle but pleasant “smoky” aroma that has been described when tasting it. Thanks to this method of preservation, shiakrot can be stored for many years without loosing its medicinal and taste properties.   Currently, shiakrot can be purchased only in one village in extremely small quantities, and most communities oppose to the commercialization of the crop. The major threat to shiakrot today is the massive deforestation that is taking place due to large-scale cash crops, coal mining and fire wood exploitation. Furthermore, people often perceive shiakrot as the tea of the poor, versus the English habit of drinking tea that is derived from well-known, cultivated leaves. Amongst the present generation, a clear shift in taste has been observed and, unless acquainted with the flavor at a young age, the new generation finds it hard to accept the unusual taste of shiahkrot. The time it takes to harvest shiahkrot is often not compatible with the modern life style that has made it easy to obtain tealeaf from any nearby shop or market. Also, the lack of proper education and instruction on how to harvest shiakrot from the forest without killing the entire plant contributes to the risk of extinction of this plant. However, with growing consciousness on health issues related to high black tea consumption, shiakrot has the potential to find its way back onto the tea-tables of communities and urban households. One small community in Mawlyngot has started to market shiakrot at a very small scale. This initiative has been taken up since April 2013 with significant success and demand. It would, however, be important to implement a market strategy and control that prevents the over exploitation of this product and to ensure the sustainable use of the root. 

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Tea and infusions