In the darkness before sunrise, I blink as the kitchen lights come on. Pulling out a small white paper bag from the tea box, I see its penciled name, ‘Hibiscus flowers’. I bought these more than a year ago, and forgot I had them. Delighted, I take a generous pinch of the blackish dried spikes, and throw them in the teapot. It’s a utilitarian pyrex number, and when I pour the freshly boiled water over the dried hibiscus flowers, the water blushes pink immediately. By the time I’ve had a stretch and pottered around a bit, there’ll be a pool of deep magenta at the bottom of the pot. The cooled tea, tangy and fragrant, will give me pleasure and sustenance all morning.
These leaves, grown so far away, have traveled a long way to be steeped in my pyrex pot and stored in my water bottle at work. I try to have a broad selection of teas. I have yarrow, which I don’t use often. Since yarrow supposedly makes one’s intuition stronger, I bring it out on special occasions. (Perhaps I should draw a pot when I’m choosing lottery numbers.) I have chamomile, peppermint and rosehip as my everyday herbs. I have linden for something smooth and bland; nettle for when I need something earthy. My wife Claudia, at once more refined and less diverse in her tastes, says, “I don’t know how you can drink that stuff.” She finds the nettle noisome.
It’s true that I started drinking herbal teas in a youthful endeavour to do something that was “good for me” but I fell under the spell of herbs quickly in my late teens. I was looking for magic. And I found it. I had a book the shape and size of this laptop, printed on sturdy, beige recycled paper. I hope that book pops up soon — haven’t seen it in ages. That book and others introduced me to European, American — and some Chinese — herbs. Thanks to them, I knew that Dang Quai and Black Cohosh were allies of menopausal women decades before I had any idea what a hot flash might feel like. With knowledge gleaned from books, observation and conversations, my herbsserved as gateways into different stages of my life. During my childbearing years, the dusty smell of raspberry leaf was a repeated motif, with its ability to strengthen the uterus and enrich breast-milk. Fennel was there too, it’s aniseed vapours evoking those cozy nursing hours. Sometimes chamomile on a spoon settled a fussy baby trying to escape the sting of cutting teeth.
A steaming pot of gingko biloba tea — another smudgy aroma — accompanied me through my years in medical school. I’d imbibe a whole teapot through a day of exam preparations. I did feel brainier taking it.
One of the reasons I drink herbal tea is that the stimulants which are routinely and ritually taken in today’s cultures affect me strongly. Caffeine is metabolised by an enzyme in a person’s liver. Your body has two copies of the gene that make this enzyme. Each gene can be a slow or fast version of itself. That person who can drink a cup of chai or coffee before going to bed has probably got two fast versions of the caffeine-metabolizing enzyme. Or you might have a slow gene and a fast one, giving a medium result, if you are one of those people who shouldn’t drink a coffee after mid-afternoon. My inbuilt caffeine metabolism is slow and slow. I get great value out of a cuppa. When I was younger I could be awake for more than one night after imbibing a single cappuccino. I even get insomnia from the chocolate powder dusted over the top.
It’s an antisocial propensity. My Claudia has a splendid coffee machine. The smell of the ground beans warms the house and the coffee makes people feel bright and pampered — especially when she tops it with hot foamy milk and a sprinkle of caramelly coconut sugar. Nowadays I can handle a tepid version of the brew occasionally.
I’ve often wished I were a fast-fast metaboliser of caffeine. When Rufus Wainwright sang about cigarettes and chocolate milk, the memory of seedy city days and the jagged edges of caffeine-induced exhaustion helped me take the song straight to my heart. Aiming for a middle way in my middle age, I still have my frills. A cup of black tea by a campfire or milky coffee with home-made cake in a remote place is a gesture I am too indulgent to refuse. The variety and subtlety of caffeinated hot drinks from around the world will always be a temptation. Claudia bought vanilla scented coffee beans when we were in Hawaii in April. I had to try it. And there are so many more. I remember tea in fragrant masses in the markets in China. The smokiness of a twiggy Japanese bancha tea or the intoxicating ritual of mate, sipped through a metal straw, have to be experienced, at least a few times.
And certainly, I will never regret drinking twenty-seven different versions of chai on the railways and buses in India in the days when it was still served everywhere in simple baked terracotta pots, by the chai-wallah who swung the pot around in an extravagant and scary arc over the heads of potential customers.
For my birthday a week or so ago, Claudia made me a chocolate and almond cake — no flour, just those ingredients with some sugar and butter — with a thick dark chocolate ganache icing. A slice of that and one of my enfeebled coffees had me up chattering like a box of birds until 4am. It reminded me of sitting awake on the wooden carriage seat of the Indian train while everyone else and their chickens slept. Then and now, it was worth it.