Tea of Malawi – Chombe, Export Quality

I have recently developed a luxurious habit of fixing myself a cup of milk tea, using Chombe. In Lilongwe, Malawi, there are a number of grocery shopping places, but we – the field research team in Malawi – always went to Chipiku first. Chipiku, on Paul Kagame Road, is a bit more dingy-looking than Shoprite, but it’s much cheaper and best for buying processed food – and Chipiku had mountains of Chombe tea in the third aisle. None of the Koreans had any particular taste for black tea at the time, so Chombe, or any other cheap, popular brands like Rab’s Classic Pure Malawi Tea remained untouched for a long time.

I dumped a lot of small-packaged Chombe into my shopping cart when time came for me to leave Lilongwe, chiefly because it was cheap. I have no idea what the rate is like now, but in 2012 for five packets it was a mere 330MK, which was at most 1500KRW, or 1.5USD. Crazy. Perhaps it would not make a decent gift, given the sad state of its packaging, but I have already seen how much the local staff were into tea, and thought it fitting to bring it back home and try it out.

Upon returning to Seoul I mostly forgot about the little Chombes sitting neatly in the cabinet, until I managed to get myself a place in the university where I could be peacefully alone, study, and do my RA work. There on a shelf I piled stocks of tea bags and loose leafs. Normally my choices were green, or Buckwheat in summer. If I did occasionally drink black tea, thanks to the Fortnum and Mason that Parveen had bought me, it was mostly straight. But then one day I ran out of green tea and there was a guest waiting expectantly for a cup of tea, so I pulled out the Chombe. I had no idea how it would taste so I only steeped it for a minute and a half, and offered my guest a steaming cup of bright orange.

“How is it?” I asked rather anxiously, pulling out another cup for myself.

“Oh, I don’t often have black tea,” he said enthusiastically, “but this is quite nice, actually. Tastes like… earth. No, no, I meant that as a compliment.”

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Chombe (leaf, export quality)

Wet leaves, dry leaves, and the actual tea (bit spilt)

So it did. Apparently, Malawian Chombe is strong and earthy. I do not know about the sweet part, but the leftover tea dregs certainly have a sour smell and reminds me bit of … salt. Well, there you go. I am no expert. Some days later, I drank it again, and again, until it began to grow on me. I regretted not having had a cup with the local staff in Lilongwe, though I occasionally did buy them sugar as gifts.

Tea is integral to Malawian people’s lives, and its price is one of the central proxies of measuring inflation along with sugar, salt, oil, and so on. Most love a good deal of sugar in their tea, when they can afford it. The industry itself is also big. There aren’t only the cheap varieties, and apparently they even produce Oolong near Salima. In fact, tea has been grown commercially in Malawi since the 1880s and the country is the second largest producer in Africa after Kenya. The plantations are concentrated in Mulanje and Thyolo districts, but the Chombe tea comes from near Nkhata Bay (different from Chombe situated in Rumphi near Nyika). According to the National Statistical Office of Malawi, “TEA, WHETHER OR NOT FLAVOURED” is almost always within the top 5 exports, and in 4th place in 2012, July to December. The parts of NSO reports that are public are not very helpful, so the only consistent data that you get is half-yearly data of January to June. The following is the change of Malawian main agricultural exports from 2006 to 2011.

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Data sources are from NSO.

The statistics in http://www.trade.gov.mw/ are woefully outdated but still the report is worth reading, and may provide you with some ideas about institutional analysis that might have been able had anybody been able to secure the data. Also, there is supposed to be a better dataset generated by the Reserve Bank of Malawi, but not much of it seems to be public. More may be found if the Tea Association of Malawi is contacted.

Tobacco accounts for at least 60% of the country’s whole export value which makes other products seem trivial, but you may see that tea has consistently been the second-most exported product in the past. Now the industry’s growth seems to be falling behind other industries, and in 2012, tea is behind groundnuts and even dried vegetables. Some say it is climate change – I do not have enough information to judge anything yet.

Next time I visit Malawi, I would really like to visit the Limbe auctions and the tea fields, and maybe find something to research about.

So my first proper tea is officially Chombe. Ted bought me loads of it when his job ended in Lilongwe on my request. Thanks Ted. The leaves are very broken – to the point of debating whether I should actually call it “leaves” – and some are grounded to fine powder, especially if they spent 24 hours in a suitcase over the Indian Ocean. So unless you are willing to drink in the powdery bits as well, my recommendation is you take a fine-mesh strainer and first try to get rid of some of those bits by shaking or tapping the strainer. I also often rinse the leaves. It blends nicely with milk, and as my stock is approaching its ‘best before’ date, I am taking the privilege of copiously adding the leaves for milk tea.

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4 comments

  1. too many memories! I’ve been searching for Chombe tea over here in UK in vain. I worked in Malawi many years ago and have never forgotten the distinctiveness of Malawi tea. Have a cup on my behalf!

    1. Thank you sir. I just realized that I haven’t left a reply! Allow me to send you a packet – I’ve still got some, though quite out of BBD now – if you still wish for some.

      1. thanks for the thought but I am OK. If you have some Chombe keep it for yourself and enjoy with some friends. Next time I am in South Africa, I’ll chase up Malawi friends and see if someone can send me some!

  2. Unika Food · · Reply

    please do check out unikafoods online: Johannesburg based and we sell Malawian products!

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