What makes mornings better for any Indian? The answer is as easy as it gets – a cup of piping hot tea with biscuits or a full-fledged breakfast. Whether you are in Kashmir or Kanyakumari, Bombay or Bengal, if you are an Indian, chai is inevitably a part of your food traditions.
At 837,000 tonnes, India is the second largest producer as well as the largest consumer of tea. Neither is it surprising that 70% of the tea produced here is consumed within the nation. Therefore, it is quite shocking to know that historically Indians are not a tea-drinking community.
Its production can be traced back to 2nd century BC in China, where the main type of tea consumed was green tea. The practice of tea drinking spread from China to its neighbouring countries and subsequently to Europe and specifically, Britain. Needless to say, we are well aware of how fascinated the English are with their tea.
It’s no surprise then that they carried their fascination with tea to their colonies. They began with importing tea from China but that was expensive and did not allow them to have control over the supply of raw materials. Hence, they started large scale tea production in Assam in the 1820s to both reduce the cost of chai as well as break China’s monopoly on the beverage. From Assam to Darjeeling and then to parts of South India, tea production spread rapidly in the country and soon, we were competing with China. By 1850s, India was the largest tea producer in the world.
However, it was not until a British ad campaign in the 1920s, that Indians started consuming tea regularly. It was very typical of the British to successfully sell products cultivated by Indians back to them to help their business in the country thrive.
Even though the British Raj ended in 1947, our acquired habit of drinking chai flourished. Moving away from the typical black tea that is absolutely loved by the colonizers, Indians started adding milk and other condiments to their preparation of tea to create their own flavour. Tea started being the beverage of choice in most households, often beginning their day with a chai and rejuvenating themselves with a few more cups through the day.
The tradition of tea drinking varies slightly from region to region. A cup of tea with a heavy breakfast is often the traditional way to start the day in several parts of the country, mainly Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Kerala. Hot poha or steaming appams with chai is the ideal way to beat the morning hunger pangs and get a jumpstart to the long day that lies ahead.
Cities with a typically large population of young, working professionals has a specific culture of chai-cigarette. With long and challenging work hours, a cup of hot tea accompanied with a cigarette is the millennial idea of relaxation. The chai tapris outside tech parks and offices are popular hangouts, de-stress zones and a little respite from the mundane work day and its demands.
In Bengal, tea is the official beverage for catching up with people for their evening ‘adda’ sessions. Roadside tea stalls with their typical concoction of milk tea or “doodh cha” served in tiny clay pots popularly known as “bhad”s. For a Bengali uncle, hours go by with numerous cups of tea and conversations on topics ranging from politics to football on a typical weekday evening.
Tea traditions in India are also often significantly famous for the different variations of chai that you get. Masala tea is typically a strong tea with cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, ground ginger and black pepper along with milk and sugar. Individually adding ground ginger, cardamom and cinnamon to your chai also adds a different flavour to the drink. Hot black tea with a dash of lemon and a leaf of mint is often a refreshing drink for the end of the day.
Another wonderful tea is the Kashmiri Kahwa. This fine tea is made with green tea leaves and spices like almonds, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and rose petals. Often consumed as a breakfast beverage, this is eaten with traditional Kashmiri delicacies such as ‘girda’. Their Noon Shai, pink tea with sea salt is also a unique preparation and is known for its spicy-nutty flavour and buttery texture.
India has its own set of traditions when it comes to tea which varies across the length and breadth of the country. Each part treasures their way of consuming the beverage making tea a household habit. To be in India and to taste the different types of chai, therefore, is an absolutely important part of experiencing the culture of the country.