Not a day goes by on the sunny island of Sri Lanka when James Taylor isn’t paid silent homage to. Credited with getting the tea industry rolling in 1867, it was Mr. Taylor who cultured the first tea plantation in the hills of Kandy. One of the Country’s main exports to date, numbers have looked better for this industry. However ‘Ceylon Tea’, or rather Sri Lankan tea, rings synonymous with premium quality product around the globe. A status acquired with the young British entrepreneur’s efforts to thank, an industrious legacy isn’t all the English have managed to leave behind. Adding to the list of parliamentary politics, immaculate architecture, railways and efficient plumbing they also rubbed-off on natives their penchant for a therapeutic cup of tea.
Mirroring the delightful custom of afternoon tea, 3 pm in Sri Lanka is equally magical. A scorching day warrants an equally scalding cup of tea here and workplaces usually schedule a tea-break around this time. Generally taken with milk and copious amounts of sugar, biscuits, and tea are popular among the average workforce. Decked-out in cakes, pastries and snacks even star hotels’ renditions of ‘High Tea’ are inspired versions of this practice.
If sipping at least one cup when we don’t have time for the Lankan standard two per day gives us any say in the matter, we’ve listed out our favorite cups of liquid gold and where to find them.
Ceylon Tea Moments: Duplication Road (earlier Race Course Complex, Colombo 07)
Not sure if it’s the 1800’s pavilion this tea house is tucked away in or the regally comfortable green and gold interior décor. But this tea house ranks high on our scale for ambiance. Owned by the Ceylon Tea Board, Tea Moments is relatively new to the restaurant scene. It opened doors just about a few years ago. Golden tea-leaves sprouting down from the ceiling. Cozy corners on their mezzanine floor. Large glass windows to gaze out of, a steaming hot cup at hand, have made it a top choice for locals and tourists alike.
There’s local food on the menu options. These range from full meals like rice and curry to slightly rarer items like ‘Kolakenda’ which is herbal soupy porridge. Although you could even drop-in for some cake and tea. But we recommend their ‘Pani-Pol’ Pancake if you’re in the mood for a more indigenous sweet option. A sit-down meal to catch-up with friends we feel is ideal.
Ceylon Tea Moments have actually moved locations, and now resides down in Duplication Road.
Pagoda Tea Room: Chatham Street, Colombo 01
The gigantic sign board ushering us in has a tiny ‘established-in’ year marked-out as 1884. No one disputes this because the buzzing restaurant has been in business for as long as anyone can remember.
Serving-up typical Sri-Lankan ‘short-eats’ which go down well with a refreshing cup of Lankan tea, their ‘Chinese-rolls’ are a thing of fame. They’re basically a confusedly christened pocket of crumb-fried meat stuffing. These Rolls aren’t the only stars to have graced the hallowed halls of Pagoda, which served as a backdrop for a Duran-Duran music video. It’s not the best place to lounge-out at. But we do recommend stopping at the historic site if you need a shady pit-stop or if you’re hungry, like a wolf.
Dilmah T-Lounge: Chatham Street, Colombo 01 | Arcade Independence Square
If you like a side of cricket with your tea, Dilmah shouldn’t be an unfamiliar name. If you don’t know what cricket is you’re obviously not Sri Lankan. Nevertheless, if you love tea as much as we do and by some cruel twist of fate haven’t heard of Dilmah, we’re just going to say you’re welcome in advance.
Closer to a coffee shop than a tea-house in appearance Dilmah’s tea lounges are the most comfortable we’ve enjoyed. When your order arrives with a timer to let you know when your Lankan tea is done brewing, you know they take tea seriously and it shows. There is a certain finesse in taste and aroma that leave other brands at a close second place to Dilmah’s version of tea.
We also recommend the interesting tea-based mock-tails and ice-teas they do, if you’re feeling a little more adventurous.
Heladiv Tea Café: The Dutch Hospital Precinct, Colombo 01
Heladiv has been in the business of premium tea since 1997. In terms of ambiance, the urban chic café had the plushest offerings of seating. Muted blue-grey couches and geometric lamps cocooned in the spacious ward of the ancient hospital is a surprisingly soothing place to sip tea in. If being left alone with an engaging read, soft music fluttering about and a warm cup of tea excites you, this is your kind of spot.
This café is also a gem for catering to the coffee-guzzling friends you might otherwise be compelled to leave behind on your journey to the perfect cup. They do starters and snacks that can be shared along with their standard sandwich shop style menu, which includes cocktails.
Tea Breeze: Racecourse Complex, Colombo 07 | Old Dutch Hospital Galle | Perahera Mawatha Colombo 03
This tea-house is on our list purely for ambiance, at one particular location- Perahera Mawatha. Facing the Beira Lake in the center of Colombo, this quaint two-tiered outlet got our attention. Fuelled by the strong produce from Mackwoods Estates, sipping on some black tea and watching the lake on a rainy day is something we have no trouble doing. The tea here, however, is strong. We wouldn’t recommend their tea-based drinks. You might need some apple crumble or a slice of sponge off their menu to get through a cup.
It doesn’t get more Sri Lankan than stopping for tea at a ‘Kade’ or shop. Today many of these establishments have upgraded from a thatched roof to glass showcases and air-conditioning. Well outside Colombo however, there are still hidden ‘thea- kade’ or tea-shop treasures which put out a few plastic chairs for you to sit while you’re sipping.
Depending on where you come across these tea-houses that generally flank motorways. The view from them is generally memorable at least. Open to either paddy fields, mountains or rolling waves you can order up a cup to your liking basking in the scenery around you.
Ordering your cup of Sri Lankan tea
A request for ‘plain tea’ is bound to result in tea without milk, sugar included. If you prefer no sugar, you’re better off asking for ‘Kahata’. The traditional sweetening agent, however, isn’t sugar, but ‘Hakuru’ which is bitten separately after each scalding sip.
‘Kiri Thea’ (milk tea) generally connotes an all-inclusive cup. ‘Tin-Kiri Thea’ on the other hand, is a breed of its own. Milk is replaced with just enough hyper-sweet condensed milk to quell the most insatiable sweet tooth.
Accompanied either a plantain or a plain ‘tea-bun’, this is how one would enjoy their Sri Lankan tea.
The Grand Hotel: Nuwara Eliya
Nearly 2000 meters above sea level Nuwara Eliya is nestled among the source of Sri Lankan tea. The Grand Hotel considered the epitome of Victorian architecture in the hills. It was the residence of former Governor Sir Edward Barnes. Today this Villa-turned hotel opens-out into a café through which cold mountain winds sweep and little comes close to savoring a warm cup of tea here.
Again, we’re not sure why this brings as much satisfaction as it does. Dilmah has set-up shop at the café and sources all its patron’s tea. But there is magic in sampling the fruits of the soil you’re sitting over.
Lipton’s Seat: Poonagala Hill
A 7km trek can leave anyone parched. Catching a glimpse from where Sir Thomas Lipton surveyed his leafy kingdom, the tea- mogul’s seat atop Poonagala hill requires a long hike through the Dambetenne Estate. Believed to have struck deals with the industrious James Taylor in ‘Ceylon’ in the late 1800’s to further his empire, Lipton’s spot is sought after today not least because of the wilderness of tea bushes it peaks over.
It seems fitting that the urge for some Lankan tea should kick-in at the sight of lush greens. As always there is a tiny ‘Kade’ type place to provide just that. Is it the cleanest place we’ve been to? No, but it does the job. If you’re willing to overlook the slightly grimy mugs the stuff carry, a killer view is definitely one for the books.