Creme of best Assam teas – Phalap
Being endowed with a favorable climate and plenty of rainfall, Assam produces some of the best variety of teas found in the world. In the bouquet of best Assam teas, Phalap may be termed as the golden prized tea. It is the unique handmade tea made by the community members of the Singpho tribe.
Singphos have been using tea since long time and there is no exact record when it had started. They produced and preserved tea in a totally unique way. The tea the Singpho people manufactured is known as Phalap. They have been producing and using it for centuries. They came to know about the medicinal value of tea from its long time use. You may be amazed to know that the Singphos kept on believing that tea can cure many deadly diseases like diabetes, heart problem, hypertension and even cancer. And now, modern research has vindicated these beliefs! As per available records, occurrence level of such diseases among the Singpho people is considerably low. Perhaps the fact that the Singphos are among the rare few tribes having a long tradition of tea drinking might have something to do with it.
In earlier days, Singphos made it from the wild teas which was available in the areas they inhabited. Now a days, the Singpho people make Phalap from the tea-leaves they pluck from their tiny home grown natural tea gardens.
In order to manufacture Phalap they first pluck the fine tender tea tips from the tea plants. Singphos never use chemical fertilisers or pesticides in these gardens. They adopt traditional and natural methods to keep unwanted weeds, pests and insects away. They extensively apply compost, vermi-compost and organic mulching in the gardens to maintain the soil fertility.
Phalap is an unfermented (read un-oxidized) variety of tea. The Singpho woman manufacture it mostly by hand processing. You will inevitably sense the unique flavour of a combination of green and oolong tea in phalap.
In processing phalap, Singphos at first roast or pan fry the tea leaves. Then they stuff the leaves into bamboo hollows. Afterwards they leave the stuff inside the bamboo hollows to dry in a bamboo platform (called ‘Dhuan-Chang’ in Assamese, meaning smoke platform ) constructed above the traditional wood fired kitchen ovens. The hot smoke emanating from the oven makes the tea leaves dry over a period of around three months. And after completion of the of the smoke drying, phalap tea is ready. It has some similarity with the famous Pu’erh tea of China – but unlike Pu’erh, you won’t find phalap in cake form.
Types of Phalap:
You will find Phalap in two varieties which are:
- Ndum Phalap: You will get it in rammed form into bamboo hollows as shown on the featured image. Also known as chunga chah (pipe tea) in Assamese, it can be sliced in the form of coins and sold as tea coins.
- Phalee: It is the loose Phalap processed without the use of bamboo hollows. These are partly sun-dried and partly fire dried. It is processed from the tea leaves collected from the original and wild tea trees.
If you could check the taste of Phalap, you would certainly be overwhelmed by the unique smoky taste of this rare tea. I won’t be much surprised, if you turn into a lifelong lover of Phalap, after tasting a few sips of it. For Singphos, producing Phalap is more custom than business. Hence as they produce Phalap, emotional bonding takes precedence over business consideration. As a result of this non-commercial approach added with longer processing time, Singphos has not been able to cross 2000 kg production mark per year for Phalap. And that is why Phalap is a tea variety which is truly rare. In addition to its rarity, Phalap is said to have some hidden magic which has made it one of the most admired ethnic tea variety among tea enthusiasts throughout the world!
Steps to brew Phalap:
- Boil the water fully
- Put one teaspoon full Phalap into the cup
- Pour the boiled water into the cup
- Allow the tea to brew for one minute for a lighter and for two minutes for a stronger cup
- You can steep Phalap multiple times, that is you can use the same tea leaves for up to three times.
(Editor’s note: The Singphos are inhabiting in Tinsukia, Sivasagar, Jorhat and Golaghat districts in Assam and Changlang and Lohit districts in Arunachal Pradesh. The same tribe people are also living in China and Mynmar and they are known as Jingpo and Kachin respectively.)
About the producers of handmade teas of Assam:
Now a days, Assam is witnessing booming activism in its tea sector like never before. Its small scale tea grower base is expanding at fast pace. The new breed of young energetic small tea growers are risk takers and they are experimenting with newer varieties of tea products. They are very much aware of their niches and also the limitations. Hence they have embraced a lean entrepreneurial, sustainable and eco-friendly growth model. Young growers are taking a route which is different from the traditional capital intensive mechanized mass production model. They are manufacturing different varieties of handcrafted and specialty teas without the use of chemical fertilizer or pesticides. Instead they are pursuing the organic route of tea production and making a difference.
Why these teas are the best?
Some important and distinctive features of handmade teas are:
• 100% organic or natural teas offer the assurance of better health benefits.
• the small tea growers of Assam are producing these teas exclusively.
• the growers use only the tender shoots 3 to 5 days’ old, thus ensure superior quality. In conventional tea estates use of 7 to 10 days’ old shoots are used. As a result, the quality drops significantly.
• Produced in limited quantity – the growers meticulously hand craft these teas and hence can produce only in limited quantity due to difficulty in production.
• Superior taste and quality – the tea experts and tea tasters have certified its superior quality.
• You get various types of teas which are not only organic and medicinal, but also blended with aromatic plants and herbs.
Check the following few examples:
- add tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum) which brings freshness, also cures cough and cold.
- arjun (Terminalia arjuna) which cures heart and joint pains,
- mint helps digestion,
- add flavors of ginger/lemon/orange/agar, and other local herbs with medicinal properties. You can ask for the blending as per your liking and/or ailment.
• Direct purchase of such teas has a more humane implication. It supports and empowers the grass-root level tiny tea growers and workers who are residing in far-flung remote areas. This in turn shall help accelerate the socioeconomic growth in the backward border areas inhabited mostly by the less privileged peoples.