Tea is a daily delight for Bangladeshis, yet plantation workers face immense hardships

The Mulnicherra Estate is the oldest tea garden in South Asia. Image via Wikipedia by Shahnoor Habib Munmun. CC BY 3.0.

In 2023, Bangladesh achieved a milestone in tea production, with production surpassing 102.9 million kilograms for the first time. This marks the first time tea production exceeded 100 million kilograms in the country since British colonials introduced experimental tea cultivation in this region in 1840. The majority of the tea produced is used domestically, indicating Bangladesh's profound love for tea.

The love affair between Bangladeshis and tea is celebrated often. Tea accompanies them through both joyous and somber moments. A cup of tea often becomes a way to express affection, with the sentiment “I desire your company over tea” being a common refrain. Capturing this essence, a popular tea brand in Bangladesh has adopted the slogan “Tea means a fulfilling life.”

However, for tea workers who tirelessly pluck the leaves to meet the market demands, tea doesn't mean a fulfilling life. Due to rising inflation and persistent poverty, they resort to eating raw tea leaves from the garden in a meal, especially during lunch at work. Not being able to afford meat and vegetables, they often use raw tea leaves as a dietary substitute, compelled by necessity rather than choice. The name of this tea leaves dish is called “patichakha.” The street food dish sold in the tea garden region has mixed reviews; some people like it, while others do not.

Patichakha. SCreenshot from the YouTube video of Sharaf Cooking Vlogs. Fair use.

Patichakha. A screenshot from the YouTube video of Sharaf Cooking Vlogs. Fair use.

What is “patichakha”?

The daily wage of a tea worker in Bangladesh is 170 Bangladeshi Taka (USD 1.45) if they can fulfil their quota of plucking 25 kilograms (55 pounds) of leaves from the plantations per day. Currently, the market prices for all essentials have surged, with an inflation rate nearing 10 percent.

With such meagre earnings, tea workers are struggling to afford basic staples like rice, fish or meat. Typically, they start plucking tea leaves early in the morning and the rice they carry as lunch loses its freshness quickly. Therefore, preparing and consuming “patichakha” from plucked fresh tea leaves serves as a practical and safe option. The workers feel that consuming raw tea leaves during work hours aids in combating fatigue, due to the caffeine in the leaves. However, some nutritionists warn against regular consumption of raw tea leaves, saying it can have adverse health impacts.

In every corner of Bangladesh, the presence of tea stalls is a common sight. Photo captured by Biplab Sarkar and is used with permission.

In every corner of Bangladesh, the presence of tea stalls is a common sight. Photo captured by Biplab Sarkar and is used with permission.

The tradition of preparing and consuming tea leaf delicacies has been passed down through generations.

The recipe for “patichakha” is relatively simple. It involves rolling raw tea leaves by hand and combining them with mashed potatoes, onions, chopped green chillies, and a dash of mustard oil.

Chef Shikha Pal has posted a Patichakha recipe on the Cookpad platform. According to her instructions, to prepare Patichakha for two servings, you'll need 2 tablespoons of raw tea leaves, 1 boiled potato, half a cup each of chopped tomatoes and onions, half a teaspoon of chopped garlic, half a teaspoon of salt, half a teaspoon of chopped green chillies, 1 tablespoon of chopped cilantro, and 1 teaspoon of mustard oil.

Patichakha is made by dicing the raw tea leaves, onions, chillies, cilantro, potatoes, and garlic, and mixing all the ingredients thoroughly in a bowl.

In a post on LinkedIn, corporate employee Abdul Hannan shared his opinion on this dish:

While I didn't find it particularly appetizing, the workers consume it daily. Despite their financial constraints that often prevent them from adding mustard oil and green chilies, they still eat it. This is because the price of a kilogram of broiler chicken is over BDT 200 (USD 1.71) while their daily wage remains at BDT 170 (USD 1.45), previously BDT 120 (USD 1.02). This makes purchasing even vegetables challenging. For them, having two handfuls of rice with some ‘patichakha’ is more feasible than buying a bunch of vegetables.

This YouTube video by Saif's World shows how Patichakha is made:

Bangladesh's tea industry

The origins of tea cultivation in Bangladesh can be traced back to the period of British colonialism. The first tea garden was set up in the port city of Chittagong in 1840, while commercial cultivation began in Sylhet in 1857. Presently, Bangladesh boasts a flourishing tea industry comprising over 167 tea gardens in 2,79,507 acres (1,131 square kilometres) of land, mainly clustered in Sylhet, Habiganj, and Maulvibazar. These gardens employ over one hundred forty thousand workers in the field, of which over 75 percent are women and they come from families with a multi-generational legacy in tea cultivation.

In the 1860s and 1870s, the Assam and Sylhet regions experienced commercial success in tea gardens, prompting a lot of foreign companies to invest. As a result, tea cultivation started to increase. With the increase in tea gardens, the demand for labour rose sharply. These opportunities attracted tea workers, who migrated from different famine-stricken regions in India to these parts of present-day Bangladesh.

However, their fate did not improve upon starting work in the tea gardens. In the book “History of the Gardens and Workers of Bangladesh,” Riyadh Mahmud and Alida Binte Saki wrote:

The garden owners regarded them as their property, controlling their freedom and frequently transferring them between different gardens. They rarely let them go outside the gardens. They had come here in search of a better life but ended up in a state of virtual imprisonment. They might not have been kept in prison, but their situation was no better than slaves.

Whether in taste, smell, or warmth, the everyday moments of Bangladeshis demand a cup of tea full of fragrance! However, people hardly encounter any news of the struggles of the tea workers, who are forced to sustain their lives by consuming patichakha.

Start the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.