Phalap: Explore The Indigenous Smoked Tea Of Assam & Arunachal

If you’ve never heard of phalap or North Eastern smoked tea, you’ve been missing out! Phalap, also known as smoked tea, is a unique and flavorful type of tea with a rich history and cultural significance. Although it originated in the mountainous province of Yunnan in China, indigenous varieties of this smoked tea are produced by a few communities in Assam and Andhra Pradesh, particularly the Singpho. Interestingly, the Singpho tribe migrated from different parts of Myanmar, Thailand and some parts of China including the Yunnan province; it's likely that this is how the tradition of smoked tea travelled in this country

It is believed that it was Singpho people were the ones who gave the British the idea of producing tea in India. While the Singhpho community uses an age-old technique of smoking tea before drinking it. The Singpho produce their tea by plucking the tender leaves drying them in the sun and exposing them to the night dew for three days and nights. The leaves are then placed in the hollow tube of a bamboo, and the cylinder will be exposed to the smoke of the fire. This method helps them preserve the tea for years and retain its flavours as well. 

This smoked tea or phalap is distinctively characterised by its smoky aroma and earthy flavour profile. The tea leaves used to make phalap are typically harvested from tea trees grown in high-altitude forests.

The most distinctive step in the production of phalap is the smoking process. Traditionally, this is done by placing the tea leaves in bamboo baskets or trays and exposing them to smoke from burning pine wood or other aromatic woods. The smoke imparts a rich, smoky flavour to the tea leaves, which is absorbed into the leaves during the smoking process. The duration and intensity of smoking can vary, depending on the desired flavour profile of the phalap.

Phalap is usually made in March when the tea tree has new leaf growth. The longer the tea is aged the more coveted it becomes. After smoking, the tea leaves are dried to remove any remaining moisture and stabilize their flavour. The finished phalap tea is then sorted and graded according to leaf size and quality before being packaged for sale.

Phalap and its GI tag

In 2024, Singpho Phalap tea of Arunachal Pradesh earned a GI tag. In Arunachal Pradesh,, smoked tea is known as "monpa" or "po cha." The Monpa tribe, one of the major ethnic groups in Arunachal Pradesh, has a long history of tea cultivation and consumption. Monpa smoked tea is produced using traditional methods passed down through generations.

In the Tawang district of Arunachal Pradesh, where the majority of Monpa people reside, tea leaves are harvested from local tea bushes and processed using a method similar to that used for Chinese phalap. The freshly harvested leaves are withered, pan-fired, rolled, and then smoked over a fire of local woods, such as pine or oak. The smoking process imparts a distinctive smoky flavour and aroma to the tea leaves, which are then dried and stored for consumption.

In Assam, the production of the Phalap starts with the withering of the local Assam varietal. Following this, the leaves are dried either through exposure to fire or sunlight, after which they are tightly packed into bamboo tubes and compressed over a fire. The subsequent post-fermentation process occurs during the ageing phase, wherein the tea is stored in a smoky environment over a fireplace, resulting in optimal flavour development when adequately aged.

When it comes to taste, Phalap offers a robust and bold profile, yielding distinctive flavours accompanied by a pleasing aroma. The first infusion unveils a pleasant hint of pinewood at the outset, transitioning into subtle caramel notes, and culminating with a delicate sweet smokiness. In subsequent infusions, the caramel undertones deepen, while the smoky essence becomes more pronounced, albeit with a mild and enjoyable bitterness. 

As the brewing progresses to the third infusion, the smoky pine wood character becomes prominent from the outset, intensifying throughout the cup's duration. Towards the end, a sweet yet slightly bitter note adds a captivating twist to the flavour profile. Phalap can be brewed up to the sixth infusion, revealing increasingly unique flavours characteristic of this enigmatic tea.

Health Benefits

Like other types of tea, phalap contains antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals that can contribute to overall health and well-being. The smoking process used to produce phalap may also impart additional health benefits.

One of the primary health benefits associated with phalap is its antioxidant content. Antioxidants help neutralize harmful free radicals in the body, which can reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. The antioxidants found in phalap, including catechins and flavonoids, may help protect against oxidative stress and inflammation.

Phalap is also believed to have digestive benefits due to its smoky flavour and aroma. In traditional Chinese medicine, smoky foods and beverages are often used to aid digestion and soothe the stomach. Drinking phalap after a meal may help alleviate indigestion, bloating, and other digestive discomforts.