Tea for Two

Tea is a crop we could grow in Minnesota, but the end product would be so foul that no one with working taste buds would go near it. The mountainous soils of Nepal, though, produce some damn fine chai, as they call it. Swadesh Shrestha and his brother Saujanya serve it at their Uptown Minneapolis shop, Himalayan Chai. The black, green, and ayurvedic teas are robust and flavorful. They are typically steeped loose, in the cup, and they are actually quite toothsome. You find yourself enjoying the sensation of leaves in your mouth—like steamed greens. The practiced customer will discreetly give the gums a whirl of the tongue before grinning in pleasure.

But there’s more in that cup than just edible dregs. Drinking at Himalayan Chai is an inherently political act. Here’s why: The tea shop is owned by Nepal Natural Tea Industry, a company that was started twenty-five years ago by the Shresthas’ father, Saumendra. Already a tea grower and exporter, and very well-to-do by Nepalese standards (he owned both the first truck and the first printing press in their hometown of Phidim), Saumendra decided he wanted to do something for the people of his native country. He enlisted a handful of families to launch a tea garden cooperative. Each family contributed some land and set to work cultivating the crop that grows so well at the village’s seven-thousand-foot elevation. Today, there are nearly two hundred families in the cooperative. Phidim now has a school and a bridge. Life is good.

The Shresthas tell me that everything that can be done by the cooperative is kept within the country. Instead of importing tea boxes from China or India, the Shresthas employ a Nepalese family to handcraft their unadorned but elegant boxes from recycled sawdust. The teas are grown organically. Cooperative members handpick the tea three times a year, and hand-deliver it to the processor in the valley. Large quantities of tea are exported to Germany, and smaller shipments go to Australia, Japan, and the United States. In Minneapolis, the Shrestha brothers are enthusiastically hoping to turn people on to chai. Swadesh went so far as to give away all tea drinks, no charge, during the first two weeks the shop was open.

Inside the tiny, marigold-colored shop at 713 W. Franklin Ave., there is the familiar hum and twang of Eastern music. The slight, 32-year-old Swadesh is eager to please and such a detail-oriented capitalist that it’s tempting to think this kindhearted cooperative is all a front. Maybe the brothers plan to take the money and run. Nope. Almost every business transaction conducted in the shop benefits the people of the tea cooperative. The profits from the brightly colored wool sweaters for sale go to a group of women living in stone huts on a Himalayan mountainside. Profits from tea sales go directly to the producers. Even the tips the Shresthas gather are sent home. The $100 collected each month is enough to send two more Nepalese children to school. This collision of good works with Western consumerism has been such a success that the Shrestha brothers are now opening a second shop, at 25th and Hennepin. —Katie Quirk