- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 16, 2005

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - “Tea is the most precious herb this world has,” says Merrill Fernando in the offices of his tea-packing house in Peliyagoda, a suburb of the island’s bustling capital.

Mr. Fernando’s MJF Group, which he founded, produces and exports Dilmah teas, which, he says, is the third-largest brand name in the global tea market — behind Lipton and Tetley.

Unlike his international competitors’ teas, Dilmah is what Mr. Fernando calls “single-origin tea,” tea grown and processed in the hills and valleys of Sri Lanka. The label also proclaims that Dilmah is “100 percent pure Ceylon” tea.

The tea produced on this island is still marketed as Ceylon tea, although the country officially has been Sri Lanka for almost 35 years; it was a British colony for more than a century before gaining independence in 1948.

“The British left us three things,” a Sri Lankan woman living in Washington told me, “the language, tea and cricket.”

Although Sinhala is the language spoken by the Sinhalese — the Buddhist majority — many people speak English. The national sport is cricket, and the British introduced and developed the tea industry.

Scotsman James Taylor began growing tea here from seedlings he planted in 1867 after a leaf blight destroyed the island’s successful coffee industry — coffee production also had been introduced by the British.

Another Brit, Horace Walpole, is credited with coining the word “serendipity” in one of his many letters. The source of that word was “Serendib,” the name given the island by Arab sea traders. Serendib is also the name of the in-flight magazine of SriLankan Airlines.

London’s Mincing Lane long was the major market for Ceylon tea, beginning with the first shipment, of only 23 pounds, in 1873. It is no exaggeration that tea grew rapidly in Sri Lanka, with 81 tons shipped in 1880 and almost 23,000 tons by 1890. Russia now is the major importer.

Sri Lankan civilizations flourished more than 2,000 years ago despite invasions, beginning with armies from southern India in the second century B.C. The Portuguese arrived in 1505 as they were developing their spice routes to the East.

The Dutch, on their way to becoming the spice-trade power, drove the Portuguese from the coastal areas they controlled in 1658, and the British East India Company seized power in 1796, although they could not subdue the independent kingdom inland at Kandy until 1815.

Although some buildings still reflect the days of the former invaders, the Portuguese connection is particularly evident on the island in names such as Fernando, Silva and Perera that fill pages in telephone directories.

Tea accounts for more than 20 percent of Sri Lanka’s exports. Although China and India produce more tea than Sri Lanka, the small island outranks them in the amount of tea exported.

Besides its business in Russia, Dilmah has rapidly become a success story in Australia and New Zealand. I have been served Dilmah teas in Argentina and Uruguay, and the Four Seasons Hotel Budapest has a Dilmah tea bar, for example. With the hiring of an agent in the United States, Mr. Fernando hopes to have his teas in shops here, although it already can be ordered on the Internet.

Mr. Fernando has been in the tea business for 50 years and is confident that his tea is tops. “It is the No. 1 brand for quality tea in the world, ” he says. “Dilmah brings real tea back.”

Dilmah, which Mr. Fernando named for his sons Dilhan (in charge of marketing) and Malik (in charge of administration and development), is sold in 92 countries. This has happened in the past 16 years, as the company has begun taking “our own brand to the market” rather than selling it to other firms to package and sell under other names, Mr. Fernando says.

To retain freshness, Dilmah teas are sealed in foil, whether packed as single tea bags or in canisters as loose tea. After tea has been packed for 10 months, “the oxidation begins to fade, and after 20 months, not much value (as an anti-oxidant) remains,” Mr. Fernando says.

He likens the cheap global multi-origin teas to “plonk,” which usually describes wine of inferior quality. He continues the wine analogy with Dilmah’s Watte Series of four gourmet single-region teas, “watte” being the Sinhalese word for “estate”:

Ran Watte, or gold estate, grown at 6,000 feet or higher, “delicate infusion, light and mellow, in the style of fine champagne.”

Uda Watte, or high-grown estate, 4,000 to 5,000 feet, “full-bodied, rounded and refreshing, in the style of a pinot noir.”

Meda Watte, or mid-grown estate, 2,000 to 3,000 feet, “strong, pungent and full-bodied, in the style of a shiraz.”

Yata Watte or low-grown estate, up to 1,000 feet, “heavy, robust and deep in color, in the style of a cabernet sauvignon.”

The Ran Watte is best taken straight, without milk or sugar; the Yata Watte is the preferred tea in the Middle East.

The multi-origin teas mixed and marketed by conglomerates have lowered the price of tea, as well as quality, worldwide, Mr. Fernando says. He cites one well-known brand as having marketed its product as “Ceylon tea” and later as “Ceylon blend” and, the ultimate insult, “Ceylon type,” when it no longer contains any Ceylon tea.

All tea — black, green or oolong, regardless of where it is grown — comes from the same plant, Camellia sinensis, or Chinese camellia. The production of black tea requires more oxidation; green tea, the least oxidation. The custom of drinking tea originated in China, and cultivation later spread to northeast India, from whose Assam state the tea seeds were sent to Ceylon.

Ceylon tea comes in three main varieties: low grown, up to elevations of 2,000 feet; medium grown, 2,000 to 4,000 feet; and high grown, above 4,000 feet and as high as 7,800 feet. The highland country near the city of Nuwara Eliya (City of Light) is breathtakingly beautiful and has as many shades of green as can fit on one island.

Nuwara Eliya is an oasis of cool weather on an island just north of the equator. It is so cool that a market selling winter clothing operates daily, and many residents wear stocking caps at night and sometimes during the day. The weather attracts many visitors from the hot lowlands.

Sri Lanka’s six tea-growing areas, akin to appellations in the wine trade, also known as agro-climatic zones, are Kandy (bright and colored teas), Dimbula (smooth, mellow and golden), Nuwara Eliya (delicate and fragrant), Uda Pussellawa (light, bright and rosy), Uva (rich and distinctive) and Ruhuna (blackish leaf and strong color). Kandy, the northernmost area, is almost in the center of the island; Ruhuna is the most southern.

Like wine, the soil, rain and sun affect the flavors of tea, which is usually picked at least every eight days — usually more often — beginning in the morning. About 300,000 workers, most always women, pick tea, usually only the bud and the first two leaves, on the island’s plantations each day. The vast Pedro Tea Estates near Nuwara Eliya have more than 9,000 employees.

The freshly picked tea is weighed and inspected, then it is taken to the tea factory, usually to the top floor, for withering for several hours. Next, the withered leaves are rolled to break down the cell structure. Then the tea is spread out on tables, where in the damp, cool air, the green tea absorbs oxygen and turns a coppery brown. A hot-air chamber — called firing — stops the oxidation process, and the tea becomes black and has become one-fourth of its raw bulk.

Sifting separates the tea into grades based on the size of the leaf particles, the main grades being orange pekoe, pekoe, flowery pekoe, broken orange pekoe, broken orange pekoe fannings, fannings and dusts.

The fannings and dusts, the lowest grades, are mainly used in tea bags. Orange has nothing to do with the color of the tea before or after brewing but is the name given to the tea that was preferred by the royal house of Orange in the Netherlands.

Sri Lanka’s tea estates are too far inland to have been damaged by the disastrous tsunami that on Dec. 26 took thousands of lives; devastated beaches; and washed away coastal villages and resort accommodations on Sri Lanka and in Thailand, Indonesia and India. On Sri Lanka, the tsunami also overturned a passenger train. The most damage on Sri Lanka occurred on the east and south of the island, where numerous fishing villages disappeared.

Several locations on the west coast, the side away from where the tsunami struck the island, also suffered fatalities, and buildings were wrecked by surging waters. A strip of small houses — I was told they were erected illegally — built between the beach and the railroad tracks that parallel much of the beach from Colombo to points south were destroyed.

We stopped near the shell of one wrecked home about 30 minutes south of Colombo, and a man walked toward our car. “That was my home. My home,” he said. “Tsunami.”

While tea is Sri Lanka’s main export — at about 6.6 million pounds — the industry itself is responsible for an estimated 600,000 direct jobs and countless more jobs indirectly.

In Sri Lanka, tea is drunk between meals or after dinner, not with meals. It is usually hot tea, to which the Sri Lankans add milk and sugar. Iced tea is available in many restaurants.

Sri Lankans are not alone in finding a cup of tea refreshing after a meal that includes one of their many curries (from seafood curries — the shrimp curry can be as good as any — to meat curries and cashew, tomato, potato and okra curries). The variety of okra used — ladyfinger — is as long and thin as its name suggests, and the result can be called ladyfinger curry. All are served with the island staple, rice.

In “The Exotic Tastes of Paradise: The Art of Sri Lankan Cooking” (Lincoln Green Publishing, 2002), Felicia Wakwella Sorensen writes that the Sri Lankans’ “prolific use of coconut milk is the main distinguishing factor from the cookery of Indian peoples. Yogurt, a prevalent ingredient in Indian cuisine, is seldom used in Sri Lankan cooking.”

Miss Sorensen breaks down the island’s curries into four main categories: red (fiery from chili powder or dried red chilies), black (from dark-roasted spices), white (from coconut milk and turmeric, which is usually incorrectly called “saffron” in Sri Lanka) and pepper (4 or 5 tablespoons of freshly ground black pepper for each pound of meat or fish).

Coconut milk is a popular ingredient to thicken curries and, as such, is one of the last ingredients added.

Breakfasts and Sri Lankan buffets include hoppers, in which a crepelike rice-flour batter is poured into a round-bottom pot in which it is swirled into a thin coating and cooked. Add an egg or two to be cooked sunny side up in the crepe, and it becomes an egg hopper.

String hoppers are made from a soft rice-flour dough that is pressed through a mold into noodles and then steamed as cakes.

Roti are thick grilled pancakes usually made from wheat or rice flour and grated coconut.

A breakfast staple, the yogurtlike curd served in clay dishes is usually eaten with treacle, a dark syrup made from the kitul palm.

A perfectly ripe Sri Lankan pineapple, as most of them are, can be the world’s best; it is tender and sweet enough to be sliced across and served without coring. Roadside stands in the pineapple area near Colombo will carve a pineapple to go — and they can sprinkle it with some of the ground local peppercorns to elevate the sweetness to new heights. Watermelons, mangoes, orange-fleshed papayas and several types of bananas are also tasty local fruits. The avocados are luscious.

Many roadside stands on the outskirts of Colombo display large stacks of king coconuts in bright yellow hulls. The vendor lops off the top of the coconut and inserts a straw to facilitate a refreshing drink. If a visitor says, “King coconuts … ,” chances are that a Sri Lankan hearing that will automatically add: “… are good for the kidneys.”

Spice gardens, with tours and products on sale, are plentiful, and rubber plantations still thrive in some areas. During World War I, rubber was a more important export than tea.

Many of the tea factories that offer tours also have a sales room and a small restaurant where a visitor can enjoy a perfect cup of single-origin tea.


In Sri Lanka, the “golden rules for perfect tea” are always the same. Here they are, courtesy of the Sri Lanka Tea Board:

• Always use Ceylon tea that has been stored in an airtight container.

• Use water freshly come to the boil, and always warm the teapot (while the water is boiling).

• Use 1 teaspoon of tea leaves per person and 1 for the pot, or just 1 tea bag for each person.

• Take the teapot to the kettle, and pour the boiling water directly on the tea.

• Allow 3 to 5 minutes for infusion time.

• Stir the pot before pouring.

Mr. Fernando says most of the world is in too great a hurry to make a proper cup of tea, even with a tea bag. He says a survey found that, on average, a tea bag brews in a cup for 17 seconds. The brewing should last for at least 3 minutes for the tea to yield its full health benefits, he says.

Mr. Fernando’s company sponsored what he hopes to make an annual event, the Dilmah Tea Culinaire in Colombo earlier this year. In the competition, won by chefs from the Colombo Hilton hotel, food professionals used black and green teas and flavored teas in their culinary entries.

Malik Fernando has led the MJF Group in establishing Ceylon Tea Trails in central Sri Lanka near Dickoya; the project has converted four deserted colonial bungalows on tea estates — built as homes for the British estate managers in the days of the Raj — into comfortable accommodations for visitors to these awesome tea-carpeted hills.

For more information about Dilmah teas, visit www.dilmah.com, where the company’s teas may be ordered; for Tea Trails of Ceylon, go to www.teatrails.com.

I discovered, with some leftover ginger-flavored tea in a teapot, an easy way to make a different iced tea. Even the ginger tea can accommodate a dash or two of milk.

Spices, even sliced ginger root, can be added to a teapot to flavor plain tea, if necessary.

Spice tea

This recipe is from the Tea Factory, an old tea processing house converted into a unique hotel in Kandapola in the Misty Mountains near Nuwara Eliya. This tea is served in the lobby to welcome guests.

1 quart hot water

2 teaspoons tea leaves

5 tablespoons sugar

2 pods cardamom

1 small piece stick cinnamon

1 slice lime

3 mint leaves

2 teaspoons vanilla

Put ingredients in nonreactive pot and boil for 5 minutes. Strain and serve. Makes 1 quart.

The following recipes are from the Sri Lanka Tea Board.

Kandyan bliss

Prepare a good brew of iced tea.

Add 1 part gin for every three parts tea, a squeeze of lemon juice and sugar syrup to taste.

Mix ingredients together and serve very cold.

Royal tea punch

2 cups boiling water

1 tablespoon tea

4 cups grape juice

2 cups grapefruit juice

4 cups ginger ale or club soda

Sugar, to taste

In saucepan, bring 2 cups water to a boil. Remove from heat, and immediately add tea. Brew 4 minutes. Stir and strain into pitcher holding juices and ginger ale or club soda. Add sugar to taste.

To serve, pour over block of ice in a punch bowl.

Makes about 25 servings.

Ceylon stinger punch

Make a brew of double-strength tea. To each measure of brewed tea add an equal amount of Scotch; half a measure of fresh lemon juice, strained; and half a measure of sugar.

Allow the mixture to cool and serve by pouring into tumblers half-filled with ice cubes.

Top up each glass with ginger ale or Coca-Cola.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide