High Tea Traditions: Tête-a-Tête With Chef Michael Swamy

There’s a new phenomenon on the culinary horizon — home chefs who offer cuisines that usually can’t be found in restaurants. But are they big enough to pose a threat to restaurants? Vikhroli Cucina spoke to some successful home chefs and restaurateurs to figure out the situation

27 Jul 2016

The phrase ‘high tea’ conjures up images of the Mad Hatter’s zany tea party in Alice in Wonderland, finger foods and, of course, tea. But how much do we know about this English custom? Vikhroli Cucina speaks to culinary expert Chef Michael Swamy as he lets us in on the facts of this charming tea tradition

Family get-togethers on a beautiful rainy afternoon, the scent of cardamom wafting into the living room, the sound of someone walking in with tea cups clinking and jostling for space on a tray; the scene is all too familiar for anyone who has grown up in an Indian household where tea-drinking is more than just a routine; it’s a ritual.

Although Indians are no strangers to the tea-drinking culture,  it is the British who have passed on their tea fixation to us; their love for the beverage caused them to start a whole new tradition around it. For the uninitiated, one of the most quintessential English customs is that of high tea, a ritual where the beverage is served alongside a scrumptious array of sweetmeats and savouries.

Renowned chef Michael Swamy gives us the lowdown on the high tea culture, “The tradition began in Great Britain in the 1700s during the industrial age. The high tea was a heavy meal for people returning home early from work. It  was had around tea time, which was between 3 pm and 5 pm. ” It was around the time when the Earl of Sandwich created the concept of putting fillings between bread, giving rise to the eponymous high tea favourite, the sandwich.  Other high tea staples included hearty fares like meat pies, scones and cakes.

P for Propah!
“So, sweet tea and finger foods you say? We have those in India!” We’d expect someone to say quite indignantly. But the English high tea  is a more sophisticated affair as compared to its Indian counterpart. Chef Swamy explains, “The English high tea is accompanied with a traditional sit down event with proper napkins and damasks (a rich fabric used as table linen). It was usually a leisurely event by the affluent class.” The art of high tea, according to the chef, was not complete without its butlers and multiple courses of food, sometimes having as many as five of them. The guests and the hosts are also expected to mind their Ps and Qs through an intricate set of etiquettes. In short, it’s a far cry from our Indian tradition where tea drinking is an informal affair.

However, India is no stranger to the high tea culture, as Chef Swamy points out, “The high tea custom is prevalent in India, especially in the old clubs which have a bit of history to them. Up in the hill stations, where there is still a lot of old-world British influence, there are places which serve a semblance of a high tea.”

The high tea custom has also recently caught the fancy of gourmands: many coffee shops in five star hotels in Mumbai serve an impressive spread with the choicest of teas from oolong to Earl Grey. But ask Chef Swamy what his personal favourites are and pat comes the reply, “Tea Centre and Gaylords at Churchgate.”

High tea with a twist
As the popular saying goes, change is the only constant. And like most good things in life, the concept of high tea itself is undergoing a transformation. Restaurants in England have been offering themed high tea parties. Think a Spanish fiesta with flavourful tapas sides or a Japanese-themed party with a scrumptious spread of sushi and tempura. Any plain Jane party can undergo a makeover just by tweaking the essential elements  of finger food and tea!

If you plan to host a high tea party, there are several ways in which you can jazz it up desi style: substitute dainty sandwiches and jam tarts with dhokla, mini samosas, mawa cakes and khari biscuits or incorporate ready-to-eat finger food specialities such as Yummiez Macaroni Cheese Nuggets, Jalapeno Cheese Bites and cocktail sausages. You could even experiment with these finger foods and come up with innovative recipes as Chef Swamy did during a high tea at Café Mangii in Khar in July 2016.

In case  you have high tea on your mind, bring out the chinaware, polish the silver and watch this space for an exclusive High Tea 101 with Chef Swamy.

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