Thursday, 11 September 2014

Sreemangal Sevens

Seven-colour tea served at Lawachara National Park outside Sreemangal.

Ten-colour tea.

Beyond town is the Sathrong – the Seven Colours – Restaurant. According to the signboard it’s “fully air-condition,” and it will be, at some time after you arrive when they switch the air-conditioner on. Or you can sit street side. Those tables have air all the time, occasionally mixed with a hint of traffic exhaust. It’s hardly a secret that Moulvibazar’s Sreemangal harbours a tea secret. It has to be tried.

A warning to fussy diners – don’t expect details from the waiter. In the case of the signature seven-colour or the newer ten-colour tea it’s not worth asking. “I don’t know what’s in it,” twenty-six-year old waiter Joshim Uddin will say, “It’s made behind a curtain.” Indeed it is. It’s a secret.

Tea. Bangladesh runs on tea. There’s no corner of the country to escape it. Community bonds are built, tested, destroyed and re-imagined in tea shacks in every local market. Who’s stealing whose land, who bought the expensive fish and who’s facing the false case because their uncle doesn’t like them much – all local life details can be imbibed over a cup.

Sreemangal's Sathrong Restaurant. The layered tea is made in secret, behind a curtain.

Sathrong Restaurant, Sreemangal.

Villagers argue politics while sipping, with election posters hanging expectantly, longingly or ridiculously, depending on the candidate pictured – waiting to be referenced or discussed – and hopefully not mocked – by tea drinkers. Plans are made and negotiations settled as water boils in Bangladesh. Exactly whose goat was eating which tree – it almost requires a cup or two to sort that out.

Meanwhile in the city, it is tea that a Baridharan lady will turn to, what she will offer even to a not-entirely-welcome guest, possibly with a biscuit. There’s civility in it. Tea is a nod to decent society. And being so quintessential, when tea comes in unusual colourful bands like at the Sathrong, it’s really something to consider.

It’s unsurprising the innovation should belong to Sreemangal. With its renowned row-patterned hillsides of tea bush the town leaves no guess work that it’s a national tea growing hub. Take a few solid strides up the road from the Sathrong and you’ll be staring at a tea garden.

Count the colours. Make sure it tallies with the order.

After the magic behind the curtain is completed, Joshim Uddin returns with the very attractive coloured tea. There really are distinctive colour bands. You’ll need to count them... to be sure the number correctly tallies with the order. You might be tempted to pump for further information...

“I think there’s coffee in it,” Joshim Uddin guesses, “Milk, green tea, black tea, ginger and sugar. Each layer has its flavour.”

Despite the kitchen’s curtain the secret hasn’t been entirely safe. A handful of places around Sreemangal now serve layered tea. Some establishments have a prohibition on anyone else being inside the kitchen while it’s made. All still zealously guard the precise methodology.

Brown, buff, orange and white; then fawn, auburn and raw umber: those are the seven layered colours in the earliest version, top to bottom, impressive, down the glass. Take your colour chart if you will. Test it. Taste it.

But is it possible there’s a secret within the secret? That the colours of those Sreemangal-sevens conceal inner meaning?

Take brown for instance. It starts with brown. Brown is the colour of raw earth. It’s rustic and agricultural. In that is the farmer’s cycle surely, the hope in the seed-sowing that follows the plough? Brown is the struggle of the Bangladeshi delta, the source of growth and vitality. Brown is where we’ve come from. It’s where we all end up. It’s a place to stand.

We could say that brown is the thud of the base drum in the orchestra called Earthly life. It’s quite understandable it’s the first of the layers to reach the tastebuds.

But what do the colours mean?

Now buff is altogether different. It’s a more recent colour: an innovation. Its first recorded use as a colour name in English only dates from 1686. Buff is the colour of undyed leather.

From brown it must signify refinement. The harvest might have grown in the field but it’s stored in say, mud brick homes – consider the buff-coloured farmhouses traditional to North Bengal. Sacks of hessian are also roughly buff, aren’t they? In them food heads to the cities. Even leather – that primary stuff of buff – is the start of shoes – fit for walking. It’s easy to sense that the buff layer is about movement and progress.

Ten colour tea from Sreemangal.
Buff is archaeology, civilisation begun. It recalls the rushing rivers of the monsoon. It’s the colour of that line across the water to be seen from the Chittagong to Barisal ship, where the water of the Bay finally encounters the buff-coloured Meghna’s outflow. A quickening in the tempo of the human song is the buff.

The colour orange comes in at number three. That colour was once referred to as yellow-red. It didn’t find an English name until the first oranges, the fruit, arrived from the east in the late fifteenth century. It was first fruit, then colour.

Orange brings excitement: amusement, elation and joy. Orange stands for the excesses of jackfruit, the exquisiteness of mangoes and the frivolous indulgence of jelabis. Happy Krishna wears yellowish-orange as often as not.

With the brown of the land and the buff of progress taken care of, it certainly seems like the time for orange – there can be no mistake here. It’s the step toward literature and poetry and emotion. It’s the colour of human expression. It befits that the orange layer tastes intoxicatingly sweet.

The fourth of seven is white. In a western sense it could denote purity. In China it might signify death. But Sreemangal being a South Asian town it’s as likely to represent cow’s milk – perhaps exactly what it is. White is that fertility symbol that leads to family and society. It makes sense because it’s hardly worthwhile to be elated with orange if there’s no white to bring about those to share it with.

From the Renaissance European artists started to dabble in white, adding it to other colours to bring new brightness, and it’s not a solitary brightness, but of society, of the many...

Next comes fawn. It’s an interesting shade of brown, mostly used to describe furnishing or fashion or the lighter pelts of some dog breeds. At the Sathrong it will take some thinking – perhaps it’s as simple as luxury. By the time we’ve reached fawn the cities are built, society is there. It’s time to decorate: a nice sofa, a pure-bred, shiny pet dog?

Each layer has a distinctive flavour.

The penultimate colour is auburn – reddish brown – and it’s even more cryptic than the fawn. Auburn usually refers to hair colour – especially women’s hair. Ann Boleyn is said to have had auburn hair, and just because King Henry VIII beheaded her in the finish is not to say she wasn’t attractive. Her fate wasn’t driven by her looks. It’s just a guess – only the tea maker behind the curtain could ever be sure, but could auburn signify lasting beauty, or love? It’s beyond the fashion of fawn – something higher, something more valuable...

Raw umber, last – it’s a teaser, it must be. It’s ironic in being prehistoric. It was with iron oxide and manganese oxide, the powder called raw umber, that over 40,000 years ago mankind painted horses on the walls of European caves. Now that’s humour, isn’t it? To remind us that no matter how far we might think we’ve come we are never far from our primitive roots. Read the horrors in any newspaper and it’s clear. That final colour in the seven-coloured tea is actually the most ancient. Our end is our beginning.

Seven and ten-coloured tea is a little adventure. Analyse the colours, sample the flavours and wonder at the secret... because, ultimately, it’s tea. And tea, as much as anything, is what keeps Bangladesh running.

It's still tea... what keeps Bangladesh running.

This article is published in Star Magazine, here: Sreemangal Sevens

Test it. Taste it.


  1. Is it drunk with a straw? Long handled spoons should be banned - destroying the layers... When tipped for sipping - can you get at layer two while layer one leave a tide mark on your lip ?

  2. Hi Simon. No there are no straws or long handled spoons involved. Not sure about the second part - surely it would require some skill. I found it was more one layer after the other in order. Interesting that the lower layers don't mix when you tip the glass. At the layer boundary is a bit of mixed flavours going on.