Where Economics alters the Tea Brew

Zinara Rathnayake in NEW LINES MAGAZINE, August 2023, where the title headline read In Sri Lanka, Economic Crisis Alters the Taste of Tea”

As a child, Sujeewan Sundaralingam woke up to his mother’s tea — thé or théthani as it’s called in Sri Lanka — made with milk powder every morning. It was creamy and thick and had a taste that the 33-year-old said he “just cannot explain.” The two-pound Anchor milk powder tin — a product of Fonterra, New Zealand’s largest company and a $14 billion revenue brand — was his mother’s most precious kitchen ingredient. She used to hide it on the top shelf, and when she wasn’t home, Sundaralingam would scoop out two tablespoons into his palm, mix it with sugar and devour it in one gulp, licking off the last bits.

A man pours tea — thé, or théthani, as it’s called in Sri Lanka. (Nazly Ahmed)


Sundaralingam recalled his childhood memories as we sat down at his house in the capital city of Colombo. “My family never made tea with fresh milk. We always craved milk powder,” he said, a smile rising through his thick beard. Like his family, even my mother, who grew up on a cattle farm, never made tea with fresh milk. For her, indeed for many Sri Lankans, making tea with fresh milk is an alien concept. Nothing, my mother said, tastes as sublime as a cup of tea rich in milk powder.

“If I can have one cup of tea a day made with a good milk powder, that is enough,” said Sundaralingam, who runs a small home-delivery business selling biryani. “That gives me life. It makes my day,” he added. But now Sundaralingam cannot afford to buy milk powder. Sri Lanka’s worst-ever economic crisis since its independence in 1948 has affected the way people eat, dress and live. It has also changed the way people drink tea.

In May 2022, Sri Lanka defaulted on its foreign debt, which stood at more than $50 billion. The rupee collapsed from 200 to 373 against the U.S. dollar after prolonged money printing. When the state failed to import necessities like fuel and cooking gas, people lined up for miles in the hot sun to refuel their vehicles — some even died in the process. Inflation rose to over 70% while a shortsighted ban on chemical fertilizer left farmers stranded. Pushed to the brink, protests escalated across the island, with people demanding a change.

Sri Lanka’s former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa — who blamed COVID-19 for crashing the economy despite his government’s poor financial mismanagement — fled the country. The World Bank estimated that the poverty rate doubled in 2022 to 25%. Last year, over 300,000 Sri Lankans left the country, higher than any other year. Reports about children going to bed hungry continue to fill the news: One mother, who couldn’t afford anything, fried dried red chili to feed her children. Another woman, forced into starvation, attempted suicide.

“Amid these tragedies, Sri Lankans’ relationship with milk powder illustrates another dimension of the country’s crippling economic crisis.”

In early 2022, supermarket shelves began to clear. Fearing a scarcity of this once ubiquitous essential commodity, wealthy Sri Lankans loaded their shopping carts and kitchen shelves with milk powder. Shopkeepers had to restrict customers to two packets at a time. When imported formulas were short in supply, people flocked to small stores of local manufacturers. Some people were shipping milk powder from Dubai. Local news reports said that the “craziest” thing one could do during this shortage was to resort to using fresh milk. “With urbanization, there was an insufficient supply of fresh milk in cities and town,” said Anne-Marie Keller, a former finance manager, who now researches Sri Lankan food and history. “Meanwhile, low-income homes did not have refrigeration facilities. Refrigeration is a big problem especially in the interior areas and villages, so dairy production is minimal. Milk powder is shelf stable and does not spoil like fresh milk, so it became a viable option for many families.”

Within a few months, the average family could only dream of being able to purchase a 14-ounce pack of milk powder. When it became available in supermarkets again, the higher prices indicated the country’s worsening food inflation, which was at an all-time high of almost 95% in September 2022. A standard-size pack of milk powder sold for 480 Sri Lankan rupees ($1.30) in November 2021. In May 2022 it had gone up to 1,020 rupees ($2.80); now it is over 1,200 rupees ($3.30) for an imported variety — a 150% increase from November 2021. Local versions sell for a few rupees less.

While the rich have their pantries well stocked, the poor are struggling to put a meal on the table. For Ayomi Dilrukshi, a single parent of two who lives 60 miles northwest of the capital in the small village of Nabiriththawewa, milk powder was a luxury even before the economic disaster unfolded. Previously, she bought it occasionally. But now, Dilrukshi can hardly afford sugar for her tea — which is plain black now.

In a country where its people and cuisines are often misconceived as an extension of its neighbor India, the culture of tea drinking illustrates the nuanced stories of Sri Lanka’s diverse cultures and communities. Before the British colonizers cut down forests and enslaved south Indians to grow tea in the 19th century, locals brewed herbal concoctions and drank it with bits of palm jaggery. Soon tea thrived in the country thanks to migrant laborers; most of them continue to live in poorly sanitized barrack houses with meager wages. Eventually, the highest grades of Ceylon tea — as the tea produced in Sri Lanka is called — was exported to far corners of the world, often at a premium price. But tea drinkers in Sri Lanka claim that what remains in the local market is the last of the tea dust, the lowest quality. But even this dust fuels their day.

For porters maneuvering through narrow, crammed urban streets with large sacks of goods on their backs, a cup of tea from a roadside stall equals a meal. Long-distance bus drivers halt at neon-lit hole-in-the-walls called “hotels” at night to recharge themselves with a cup before hitting the highway again. Every morning before school, wealthy and middle-class mothers brew cups of tea with milk powder for their children, poorer ones without it. Tea is an emotional affair in Sri Lanka, and milk powder just adds to this experience.

My mother and father grew up in the 1960s; their parents were cattle farmers. On some mornings, they used to milk cows, boil the milk and drink it after mixing in sugar. Fresh milk was abundant, but none of it was added to the tea. They used to drink it plain and black. But when I was born, doctors at the hospital suggested they feed me milk powder formula. That’s how it was introduced to our household. My mother told me how, even as a child, I would ask only for milk powder tea. Throughout my life, I always looked forward to my father’s frothy milk powder tea, poured from one cup to another until it began to bubble.

In “Ceylon Then / Sri Lanka Now!” a Facebook group in which members nostalgically recount their memories from the island, some remember buying Lakspray — a milk powder sold by Lanka Milk Foods — for 3 Sri Lankan rupees (less than a cent) in the 1970s. My Tamil father-in-law, who grew up in Colombo, recalled his family making tea with fresh cow’s milk, but they shifted to milk powder in the 1980s. As the city became more urban, he said, people didn’t graze cows anymore, and it was no longer economical to supply fresh milk from outstations.

Although it’s difficult to pin down, milk powder might have been introduced to Sri Lanka as early as 1927. Multinational companies first started distributing milk powder for free through hospitals. When my father was a teenager, he received a glass of free milk powder tea at school. The earliest marketing campaigns claimed milk powder was nutritious for children and lactating mothers. The early 1980s saw the popularity of Nespray Everyday — an instant milk powder brand manufactured in Sri Lanka and owned by the Swiss multinational company Nestle. In her biography “Against the Tide,” published last year, business leader Sumi Moonesinghe shares the marketing plans from 1984 to take on the Swiss giant. After a meeting with the New Zealand Dairy Board, Moonesinghe wanted to increase sales for Anchor milk powder, which was imported from New Zealand and packaged in Sri Lanka.

Moonesinghe appealed to the Sri Lankan ideal of classifying everything that is imported as being superior and promoted the idea of the “clean pure air of New Zealand with cows grazing on green grass on pristine plains.” She also cultivated the idea that mothers trusted Anchor because it was “pure wholesome milk powder.” Rosy Senanayake, now a politician but was crowned Mrs. World in 1985, became the face of the marketing campaign. Over the next 12 years, Anchor acquired 70% of the market share and overtook Nestle as the market leader.

Over the years, milk powder became integral to the country’s tea culture. In 2012, Sri Lanka imported 85,000 megatons of milk powder, 17 times the amount it did in 1987. A 2006 study found that only about 1% of Sri Lankans consumed fresh milk regularly; 63% of them rely on milk powder.

“People became so emotionally attached to milk powder tea, especially those who do hard labor. If they eat a full meal, they can’t work; it feels too heavy for them, so they would have a cup of tea instead. They run their life with tea, and if a cup of tea has to run their life, it has to be good,” Sundaralingam said.

“The taste is unparalleled and super filling,” said Deshani Dharmadasa, director at Upali’s by Nawaloka, a restaurant in Colombo. At the Dharmadasa home, a creamy cup of milk powder tea was a daily ritual before school. “I still joke with my mother saying that it was one-quarter cup tea and three-quarters milk powder, so that’s technically not a cup of tea,” she said. “My family never travels anywhere without milk powder, because both my parents could not live without it.”

A packet of milk powder could last several days or a week for a family, depending on how many cups are consumed and how thick the tea is. Wealthy mothers make their tea creamier; poorer ones add more water. Milk powder might have made its way across the island via multinational companies and tactical promotional campaigns, but Sri Lankans welcomed it with open arms. It has become enmeshed with local life, so much so that a cup of tea means “tea made with milk powder,” and the one without is just “plain tea.” It brought families together every evening, when children played outside and mothers chatted about their favorite TV shows. Good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, milk powder tea offered comfort.

But this comfort is not available to everyone now. “Milk powder is not on our shopping list anymore. Once in a while, when the budget feels OK, we buy it and skip chicken for that week,” Sundaralingam said. “It’s a balancing game, like life.” When I talked to him recently, Sundaralingam complained that Anchor — his childhood favorite — doesn’t carry the same quality anymore. “It feels rather bland, less thick and watery,” he said. He now has to use more spoonfuls of the powder for a single cup, which means that a pack doesn’t last long, “about three days,” he said.

But as a middle-class child who grew up with milk powder, Sundaralingam finds it difficult to shift to cow’s milk, because its prices have doubled. Moreover, it can’t teleport him back to the taste and smells of his mother’s home. On some days, he buys a milk powder sachet from a corner shop, enough for a cup when he craves one. Sold for a few rupees in mom-and-pop stores across the island, these sachets have now become a symbol of the country’s rapidly depleting purchasing power. It has also become a symbol of aspiration for the Sundaralingams, whose middle-class desires remain shattered in this economy. But in the supermarket across his home, different varieties of milk powder are neatly stacked on shelves for a minority who can afford them.

When milk powder became expensive, manufacturers introduced a new set of cheaper alternatives to the market, including three-in-one formulas advertised as a mix of tea, sugar and milk powder. Tea drinkers claim that they taste anything but milk powder tea. Despite that, a small restaurant owner in the busy Colombo neighborhood of Narahenpita told New Lines that he uses the three-in-one formula and sells a cup for 100 rupees (about 28 cents). Each cup brings him a profit of eight cents. Before the crisis, he sold milk powder tea for a profit of 25 cents per cup. Another hole-in-the-wall shop in Colombo has shifted to using canned condensed milk. But even that is difficult to find in local markets now. So they’ve stopped serving tea altogether. It has been replaced by Nestomalt, an instant malt drink sold by Nestle.

At his popular roadside restaurant in Colombo, owner R. Kumar — who did not want to publicize the restaurant’s name — uses fresh milk to thicken his tea. He no longer uses milk powder to even make sweets such as gulab jamun — the popular South Asian dessert of fried balls of dough soaked in a sugary syrup, commonly made with powdered milk in Sri Lanka. Instead he buys heavy cream powder from Pettah, the country’s busiest wholesale market — which is called “ice cream” as many businesses use it to make ice cream — Kumar said. The sweet lacks the same taste and texture of one made with milk powder, but loyal customers still dine at this generational, family-run restaurant.

My parents — both pensioned and retired — have stopped buying milk powder now. My mother assures me that tea tastes “better” without it when drunk plain and black, but I think she carries a sense of pride about her childhood when she didn’t know what milk powder was and when fresh cow’s milk was plentiful. Her childhood stories portray a sense of simplicity and calm, far from the calamities of today. When my younger sister visits home from university, my mother buys cow’s milk from the neighbor, who recently started a small cattle farm to feed his children fresh milk daily. “It’s for your sister’s tea,” she said.

Meanwhile, data from the Central Bank of Sri Lanka shows that inflation decreased in the most recent quarter. The return of tourism in the high season may offer a glimmer of hope to this tiny island, but many Sri Lankans continue to migrate as taxes increase to meet the demands of a bailout from the International Monetary Fund. While the country still lures tourists who have dollars to spend and write home about how beautiful the country is, today living in Sri Lanka feels like the first cup of tea I ever made in my father’s absence — runny, pale and lifeless. 


This article was published in the Spring 2023 issue of New Lines‘ print edition….. https://newlinesmag.com/reportage/in-sri-lanka-economic-crisis-alters-the-taste-of-tea/

 Zinara Rathnayake is a travel, food and culture writer based in Sri Lank

This TPS Item immediately attracted TWO RESOUNDING CHALLENGES

ONE from PROFESSOR GERALD PEIRIS of Peradeniya University, 17 August 2023 

Michael, look

this is sheer bullshit or hogwash. This Sundralingam (?) or whoever he is must surely be a rare exception. It is possible that he might have been telling the author of this piece about some other country. There never were milk powder satchels in “mom and pop shops” or any at retail sales outlet in Sri Lanka. Over a brief period about 10 years ago, satchels of powders like Milo and Nescafe were available. But no longer.
The author of this piece provides us with evidence of her almost total ignorance about Sri Lanka. For instance, she has written about a survey conducted in 2006 on milk consumption in SL, presumably to show that milk powder was far more popular than fresh milk, forgetting that there was a deadly war at that time in the N-E of the island over most of which only satellite surveys were possible. There were no ‘hole-in-the wall’ refreshment sellers along any of the long-distance bus routes.  There were two or three in the Cinnamon Gardens area, and two near Royal and Thurston colleges.  Could this rubbish be a sales gimmick for Anchor Milk produced in New Zealand? Probably not. That it could be a product of plain stupidity is more likely.

Properly brewed tea with fresh milk, as far as I know, is the standard concoction. Two of my grandmothers shop-at Dunagaha — a tiny collection of shops and a large school at a road junction in the interior of Colombo District – up to about the late 1950s — were ‘restaurants’  ( they wathura kaday, as they were called), made their kirithey with fresh milk. At our home (shifted from place to place with the transfer of my parents’ work-place at about 3-tear intervals, we drank tea with fresh milk (if available in unadulterated form) or else, mixed with Nestomalt or Horlicks – quite tasty, and believed to be more nutritious. At Yasa’s home (they owned milch-cows) tea was always served with fresh milk. Now, with the retail price of a lt. of fresh-milk at more than Rs. 800, the restaurant price of tea with milk could be as high as Rs. 250/- depending on the type of restaurant patronised. There is a South Indian chain of restaurants named ‘Bi Ju’s’ in Kandy and several other larger towns (purely vegetation, clean, and unlike the Thosay Kadays that offered a belly-full meal at 10 cts, which we patronised as school kids ). An outlet for post-Coronavirus ‘milk tea’ sold even in those proletarian outfits would now be about Rs. 200 to accompany the separately priced Thosay or Iddly – still no service charge, though.

So, what is this article trying to convey? Its author, when referring to tea mixed with fresh milk as ‘alien’ ought to realise that, even in the main tea-plantation areas, tea was largely “alien”, and the milk came from the udder of locally owned cows, until in parts of the highlands (mainly Horton Plains) corporate sector dairies began to share the fresh milk market with the local peasantry.

What needs more consideration is the question of why SL failed to develop dairying which India has succeeded so spectacularly.

Best regards, …..Gerry”

TWO:  NOTE from VINOD MOONESINGHE in Colombo, 17 August 2023

This is bullshit. Remember when the academics did a number on Gota’s Chinese organic fertiliser?

In 1986 Chernobyl melted down. Shortly afterwards, the Sri Lanka customs impounded a shipment of Nespray, saying it was contaminated with radioactive matter. The Science academics rushed to confirm this. It turned out that the shipment had been dispatched BEFORE the Chernobyl disaster…………………….
However, Anchor “Only from New Zealand” became the market leader.

Best wishes,  Vinod Moonesinghe


https://thuppah i.wordpress.com/2017/07/18/ceylon-tea-and-its-surrounds-richard-simons-tour-de-force/



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