KATHMANDU, Nepal — Despite my cynicism about claims of superiority that come from anywhere, I always smile whenever I see such claims as “World’s Best Cup of Coffee.” (I’ve even tried a few.)
Yet when I came across a tea shop in Kathmandu that claimed to have the best type of several different varieties, I couldn’t be so quick to dismiss — especially since I wasn’t familiar with the types of teas in question.
Best Ilam Tea: The Tao of Tea offers some background: “The name Ilam is derived from the Limbu language in which ‘Ii’ means twisted and ‘Lam’ means road.” It felt a bit like relying on Starbucks for a history of coffee, although it could very well be true. It continues to inform that tea production in Ilam, in Nepal’s eastern region, began as early as 1863, when the Chinese government offered then-Prime Minister Jung Bahadur Rana tea saplings that were then planted in Ilam.
Best Uppel Asham Tea: Black and green teas from the India’s state of Assam are given this name, spelled at this vendor as “Asham.” Assam is the world’s largest tea-growing region, bisected by the Brahmaputra River, and bordering Bangladesh and Myanmar. “Southern China and Assam are the only two regions in the world with native tea plants,” Wikipedia says.
Best Darjeeling Tea: Known as “the Champagne of teas,” apparently, Darjeeling tea is name after the district in West Bengal, India, from which it hails. “It is available in black, green, white and oolong,” Wikipedia states. “When properly brewed, it yields a thin-bodied, light-coloured infusion with a floral aroma. The flavour can include a tinge of astringent tannic characteristics and a musky spiciness sometimes described as ‘muscatel.'”
Best Asham Tea: Again, I am assuming that “Assam” was erroneously transcribed here as “Asham,” and that it differs from Upper Assam tea in that it doesn’t only come from the northern part of the state.
Best Nepal Tea: Likened to Darjeeling tea, Nepali tea appears to bear some relation to Ilam tea, as they’re grown in roughly the same region, far as I can tell. “Nepali tea has been an unintentional ‘best-kept secret’ in that it has not been very successful in capturing the limelight in the world tea market, perhaps due to the lack of sufficient quantities of tea,” Wikipedia writes.
Could this tiny tea seller truly carry the best examples of each of these tea varieties? It’s entirely possible. (And to think that we in the United States often buy tea in crystalized or powder form.) Sometimes, though, I do think I’m too willing to believe claims in unfamiliar places, much like Buddy in the movie “Elf,” when he comes across a greasy-spoon diner with a sign out front that reads, “World’s Best Cup of Coffee.”
The naive elf, unfamiliar with modern society, runs inside and shout at the top of his lungs, “You did it” Congratulations! World’s best cup of coffee! Great job, everybody! It’s great to meet you.”