Eva, the owner of I Tea Monster, shares her family’s legacy of growing and making kawa daun (coffee leaf tea). This tea has survived Dutch colonialism. Inspired by her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, she has continued the family tradition of cultivating and selling coffee leaf tea.
The colonization of Indonesia
Indonesia was a colonial subject of the Dutch for 350 years. In 1949, the Netherlands formally recognized Indonesian sovereignty after the Indonesian National Revolution.
The Dutch originally came to Indonesia for spices and built a monopoly on the spice trade. The Moluccas was the only place in the world where nutmeg grew. The Dutch began trading with the Bandanese. They tried to make it so that they could not sell nutmeg to any other group.
The Bandanese resisted and sold to the English, which upset the Dutch. The Dutch hired Japanese samurai and mercenaries to butcher the Bandanese people. The conquest culminated in the Banda massacre, which saw 2,800 Bandanese killed and 1,700 enslaved by the Dutch.
Along with starvation and constant fighting, the Bandanese felt they could not continue to resist. They negotiated a surrender in 1621. The Dutch also made deals with local kings and sultans to secure their monopoly.
A changing market
Spices soon fell out of favor in favor of French cuisine, which does not require the heavy use of spices. The Dutch then turned to growing coffee, tobacco, cacao, and rubber, and built plantations. They needed lots of land, so they started more wars and expanded their colonial reach. The word “java” is synonymous with coffee because the island became the biggest exporter of coffee due to the Dutch.
However, this was not as profitable because they did not have a monopoly. In 1799 the VOC (Dutch East India Company) went bankrupt. But the Dutch still needed money to fund their wars. The king had an idea to tax the local population, called the cultuurstelsel. In Java, farmers had to use 1/5 of their plot to make cultural goods. If you didn’t have land or a farm, you had to work 66 days a year in a government plantation. This became wildly successful for the Dutch, and they demanded more from the farmers, leading to abuse and starvation. The injustices became so awful that the Dutch ended the cultuurstelsel. In its vacuum, the Dutch’s local army, the KNIL, expanded their expeditions.
Eva embraces family legacy and creates I Tea Monster
I Tea Monster owner Eva sells kawa daun, coffee leaf tea, in Canada. Her coffee leaf tea is something that came out of this colonial past. Her coffee leaf tea was created by her great-great grandmother and her family in the village in West Sumatra, Indonesia. When the Dutch came to their country, they asked her family’s village to plant coffee. The Dutch forbade the villagers from drinking or trying the coffee, and the product was sent back to the Netherlands. Eva’s ancestors at the time were curious about what this coffee was. They took the leaves of the coffee instead. From Eva’s great-great grandmother, she passed it onto Eva’s grandma. Her grandma passed it down to her mother and then to her.
Eva recounts how this knowledge was passed down to her. “It was hunting season, and my grandma asked me to come with her. I was only six years old at the time, and I followed her to the kitchen. She said to me, ‘Grab the bucket and follow me.’ I grabbed this huge bucket. We went all the way to the back of the house, where we have a lot of coffee trees. And one thing that I remember was watching my grandma picking the leaves of this coffee plant. And I remember the leaf of this coffee was so wide and long. I didn’t fully understand everything, but I was paying close attention to what she was saying to me.”
A tea for special occasions
This tea was only made on special occasions as well; it was not a tea that was consumed daily. They drank the tea when they harvested rice and celebrated after. They did not drink the coffee leaf tea with a cup but with a coconut shell. Eva recounted how beautiful it was to drink coffee leaf tea out in the rice paddy field in the open. She was surrounded by mountains, fields, and a lake. The family would gather there to celebrate, pray, and eat and drink the tea in its coconut shell.
She recounts this memory: “When I was drinking this in its coconut shell, I looked up to the sky. It was beautiful to be alive, just having that simple tea with the coconut shell.”
Eva also described why she named her tea I Tea Monster. Whenever her grandma made the tea, she would go crazy for it! She could smell the aroma of the tea from the kitchen all the way to the living room. She would run to the kitchen, and her grandpa would become upset with her and call her a monster. And her business name, Niyua Import, means coconut leaf, and it is also her mother’s clan name.
“Something that I really appreciate and something that I’ve been grateful for is to have a mother and grandmother. They helped me to really understand what it takes to be a woman. And to not forget where I came from,” Eva reminisces about her family.
Celebrating Eva and her cultural heritage this AAPI Month
This love in her family made this clandestine tea harvest survive through Dutch colonialism. The punishment of harvesting could have been torture or death. And now this tea is expanding to North America, with many health benefits and a lower caffeine amount. With every cup of coffee leaf tea enjoyed, there is a deep history to be remembered.