Its name means literally "tea from the thorny plant" Appearance, taste and flavour: Sha Shiahkrot is an indigenous tea preparation from the root of a wild plant that is found in the forest of Meghalaya in North East India. Describing the whole plant, shiahkrot is a creeper that climbs along very large trees, one of them being diengsning, tangling its roots up to 6m meters high. Its green leaves are broad and thorny while the long liana has a greenish-brown colour. The part that is used for the tea preparation is the root which is flashing red on the inside and brown on the outside, mimicking the soil in which it is buried. While the average size of the roots is 3 to 4 feet in length and 3cm in thickness, some claim that much longer roots of up to 10 feet have been found in some parts of the forest. Furthermore, one single shiahkrot plant can bear up to 10 of such roots that are supplying the plant with rich nutrients and medicinal properties. The woody root feels rough, irregularly shaped and is slightly hairy. Finally coming to the description of the tea itself, it gives an infusion that is red brownish in colour, similar to Roiboos tea. The taste of the tea is described by locals as refreshing and aromatic, unique in its spice-like but mild flavour that feels soothing to body and soul. Though being a medicinal plant, it doesn't taste strong or even bitter but rather slightly sweet and fruity. Local farmers distinguish between two varieties namely baheh & barit, meaning big one and small one. Its use: Apart from being used in its pure form as a tea, the root is also mixed with ginger to make it a tastier hot beverage. This is a new idea that has come up in recent food festivals that have been held in order to revitalize some forgotten foods. The type of ginger used is a local variety called sying bah, which is distinguished by its size which is much larger than ginger from the market. Especially children prefer to add sugar or honey to add a pleasant sweetness to it. More importantly, shiakrot is a medicinal plant that has long been used by herbal practitioners for its properties that help cure various stomach troubles thanks to its antibacterial properties (source: department of advanced Biology, NEHU, Shillong). For the same reasons, mothers apply shiakrot to the navel of newborn babies to prevent bacterial infections.
How it is collected: Though Shiahkrot is available throughout the whole year, indigenous farmers prefer to collect it in the month of October when the roots are found abundantly. The best location for searching Shiahkrot is close to the riversides, preferably on steep slopes. In east Khasi hills, Shiahkrot is also found plentifully amidst the rich biodiversity of the sacred forest law kyntang bniah. However, traditional belief restricts the collection of plants from these forests for protecting the cultural landscapes and dignifying the spirits that are believed to still be present in these protected areas. In those areas, on the other hand, where it is permitted to collect the plant, the collector has to first look for two particular species of trees that are known to be the hosts for the creeper, for example diengsning, after which he/she digs about 1 to 2 feet into the soil to find the root of Shiakrot. For this purpose, a traditional tool, called the lyngka is used. The lyngka is an iron with a sharpened top that allows cutting even through hard soil. In case such a tool is not handy at the time of collection, one can also use the twigs of diengngan or diengsning trees in order to carve a sharp tool. Indigenous knowledge has been orally handed down, that an even better place for finding Shiahkrot is near riverbanks where the roots hide under small stones. In these lucky cases, the root is not deep under the soil but can immediately spotted after removing the stones. Once the root is detected from under the soil, the same tool is used to cut the root. This moment is very decisive in the entire process, as the collector has to carefully extract the amount of the root that he requires and leaves the remaining bit in the soil in order to ensure that plant will not die off but remain to grow for future generation s that will also need to make use of this precious plant. While during the past, only women and men used to be the collectors of the roots, today also children are sent to fetch shiakrot from the forest. This fact has brought about a range of problems, as children are not fully aware of the collection process due to a lack of proper education in the field itself. Unlike adults, children often exploit shiakrot for its entire root instead of leaving parts for re-growth, which reduces the survival rate of the plant. What is the processing method: After having obtained the root from the soil, it is cleaned in the river or other water sources in order to remove dirt or insects, if necessary. After drying it briefly in the sun it is stored inside the house in a bamboo basket (ka shang) and preferably transferred to particular place called Ryngien, which is traditionally constructed bamboo board that hangs in suspension above the fireplace in traditional houses. This closeness to the smoke/fire preserves the root naturally as no moulds or other fungi can occur. Presumably, this storage also gives the tea its subtle but pleasant "smoky" aroma that has been described when tasting it. Thanks to this method of preservation, shiakrot can be stored for many years without loosing its medicinal and taste properties. By the way, the Ryngien is also used for many other foods such as dried chillies, corn and millet. While mostly found in traditional, wooden houses, the modern houses built from concrete are mostly not equipped with it anymore. When it is time to make use of shiakrot for making tea, the root is cut with a tari (typical Khasi knife to which many beliefs are attached) into small chips. For 6 cups of tea, the required amount of water is measured and poured into a kettle for boiling. About 1 tablespoon of shiakrot is sufficient for this amount of water and the tea should be boiled for a couple of minutes only before it is ready to be drunk. Another advantage of shiakrot is that the same batch of tea can be re used around 5 times without committing on flavour and medicinal value.
After India's Independence in 1947, villages in the valley of Sohra recall an English missionary coming to Katarshnong and the tribal community did not have any beverage to offer. As Sha Shiakrot was the only item they had in their house along with
Only in 1 village in very small quantities. (about 1kg since April 2013). Most communities oppose to the commercialization of the crop.
The major threat to shiakrot today is the massive deforestation, which is taking place due to large-scale cash crops, coal mining and fire wood exploitation. Furthermore, people often perceive shiakrot as the tea of the poor in opposition to the English habit of drinking tea that is derived from the well known cultivated leaves. Amongst the present generation, a clear shift in taste has been observed and unless acquainted with the taste at a young age, the new generation finds it hard to accept the unusual taste of shiahkrot. Clearly, obtaining shiahkrot from the forest means spending time for finding and obtaining it from the forest in the described method. This is often not compatible with the modern, market-oriented life style that has made it easy to obtain tealeaf from any nearby shop or market. Also the lack of proper education and instruction on how to harvest shiakrot from the forest without killing the entire plant, contributes to the risk of extinction of this plant. However, with growing consciousness on health issues such as diabetes, gastric problems related to high black yea consumption, shiakrot has the potential to find its way back onto the tea-tables of communities and urban households. One small community in Mawlyngot has started to market shiakrot at a very small scale. This initiative has been taken up since April 2013 with significant success and demand. It would, however, be important to implement a market strategy and control that prevents the over exploitation of this product and to ensure the sustainable use of the root. Other communities have already discussed the issue of marketing and even opposed to it as they fear an overexploitation. A more local approach amongst nearby communities seems a more reasonable step to take at the beginning. The ark of taste listing could assist in raising awareness about the issue of forest conservation and sustainable use of wild edibles. Networking amongst shiakrot users could result in a well thought decision weather this crop should enter markets and if so to what extend. Locals have also tried to cultivate shiakrot in their gardens to prevent an overexploitation of the species from the forest. However, the trials have remained without success. People are also doubtful if a cultivated variety will contain the same properties or not mainly because their traditional knowledge has taught them how soil composition is determining the medicinal and nutritional properties of such crops. (The collection and use of shiahkrot has been documented through a community initiative by participatory video documentation (together with InsideShare, UK), which can be watched on youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uw3-JMpu1UQ )