A Chai Lovers Soliloquy

My love story with chai goes back to my scholar days in Kerala. I was doing my study in journalism & tea became an indispensable part of our routine – morning, post lunch, evening, and even a midnight tea session at times. We had a cozy ‘chaya kada’ (tea shop) where we went during our gaps. 

I experienced and tasted Sulaimani chai, a Malabar spiced tea influenced by and origins in the Arab nations, for the first time during my days in Kerala. Available in all tea shops there. This magical mixture is tea boiled with spices like cardamom, cloves, ginger, tea leaves, or tea dust. No milk was added. A generous squirt of lemon in the tea completed the brew. It is regarded as a good digestive after meals. Once in a while, we also had the regular chaya with kadi (tea with snacks/savouries) at tea time. Sulaimani became my regular drink when I shifted to Bangalore (fondly called namma Bengaluru). I have very fond memories of gathering every night (almost midnight) after our shifts at this small outlet near our office to have Sulaimani. Sadly, I had to leave Bangalore too. 

My next (and almost second home – spent 15 golden years there) destination, Delhi. The chai tapris (street stalls) there became my new hangout zones. I found my chai tribe here as well. Winters became extremely unique for me. The heady smoky cigarette air mingled with the smells of the brewing tea stirred a young journalistic mind. Most of my story ideas were brewed along with the chaiwala’s chai. Having spent half my youth in Delhi, I can vouch that chai is a culture and a way of life there.

A go-to-beverage for every Indian as they wake up! Every city has a distinct chai culture. Locals will always vouch for their city’s tea to be the best too. Brews may change, and preparation techniques may vary but the flavour and aromas of chai leave one yearning for the next cup. There is a huge cultural dissimilarity in the chai prepared in the north, south, east, and west. 

Chai has also been an ice breaker, be at a gathering, at official meetings – those crucial junctures when the discussion goes tangent with your brains and eyelids start shutting, that knock on the door saying “tea ready” opens every shut-eye. 

Anyone in the creative domain will testify for chai too. Any brainstorming session demands chai to stir the senses. Each drop of tea is said to stimulate and revive the brain. Good old writers sat in tea shops to start a book or article. Tea inspired them to write more. Cups of tea piled up on the table till the end of the day.

India has a sizeable tea as well as a coffee drinking population. Both groups have constant banter and discussion over which brew is the best. The discussion often enters the domain of “Coffee-Toffee…the argument continues” (a good old Doordarshan ad on a chocolate brand). Truly, no conclusion has been found yet regarding which brew wins hands down first. As they say, the excess of any of these drinks is bad, a chai lover often proudly flaunts even a doctor’s statement as a medical certificate, certifying chai is good for health. Yes, even medical practitioners are biased towards chai!

The 80s and 90s generation will have scores of tea memories – whether it was going to watch a movie in a theatre, a picnic, or any family gathering, a flask of hot chai (for adults) was an integral part of every get-together. The ‘Wah Taj’ popularized tea in all households. Other brands back then followed suit. 

Whether you go to the highest altitudes of the country or the coastline, chai is the first drink you will taste in every region you go. Coffee (according to chai lovers) remains a drink that came much later. And you will be surprised to know (chai lovers would know it) that it is brewed in different ways across the country – north, south, east, and west. Some teas have extra milk while some have less milk or even no milk. The way you brew chai determines the signature style of every region.

Recommended by chai connoisseurs, these are some of the best tea varieties in the country.

Darjeeling Tea

This tea leaf grows in the pristine hills of Kalimpong. Brew it using an infuser. Cultivated and processed in the Darjeeling or Kalimpong Districts in West Bengal, India, Darjeeling Tea tea is made from Camellia sinensis var. sinensis. These days you get leaves suitable for making not just black tea but also green, white, and oolong teas.

Assam Tea

A Black tea named after the region Assam, India from the plant Camellia sinensis var. assamica indigenous to Assam. It is known for its body, briskness, malty taste, and robust, radiant colour. A black tea brew made of tea leaves, which are grown at sea level. 

Masala chai

Masala chai contains seven primary ingredients. Of course first is water and then without a doubt tea leaves, milk, sugar. And the masala’s used for this aromatic chai are cardamom, black pepper, and ginger. This brew made of black tea leaves sometimes also has spices like cinnamon, cloves, and bay leaves too.

Kashmiri chai or Noon chai

A time-honored tea beverage with roots in Kashmir, pink tea is milky and light-colored, garnished with almonds and pistachios. Gulabi Tea as it is known is prepared from a type of green tea leaves or gun powder tea, milk, salt, and baking soda and is cooked in a samavar(a metal container to heat and boil water.).

Kashmiri Kahwah

A tea flavored with cinnamon, cardamom, and saffron, Kahwa Tea is Kashmiri beverage not to be missed. It is prepared in samovar. It is green tea served with chopped dry fruits. They include almonds, pistachios, and cashew nuts.

Butter tea

Created from stirring tea, salt, and yak butter, Po Tea or Butter tea is surprisingly good for your health. It is said to improve vitality, help radiate your skin, be better for digestion, improve mental function, quash hunger, and control dehydration. Known as Po cha, it is a chai widely available in Ladakh, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh. It is brewed using regular tea leaves, yak butter, or even butter made from cow’s milk, water, and salt. It has it origin in Tibet.

Irani chai

Irani Chai is a sweet and creamy chai made by mixing mawa or khoya (dried evaporated milk solids) with black tea. At times spices like cinnamon and green cardamom added. It’s optional. It is a is a Persian-influenced tea. It is a creamy, brown colour milky tea and quite sweet. Available in Irani bakeries and very popular in the city of Hyderabad.

Amrutulya chai 

Boiled in brass pots, with an equal amount of water and milk, Amrutulya chai is loaded with sugar and spices. To give it the taste, crushed cardamom, ginger, dry ginger, pepper corns and more spices are added. The brass pot retain the heat and flavour is brilliant. The name has sanskrit origin meaning Nectar of immortality, the tea has its origin in Pune, Maharashtra. This chai is extremely famous in Pune. The chai masala is special – powder dry ginger with lightly roasted black peppercorn, white peppercorn and green cardamom, nutmeg.

Sulaimani chai

Mohabbat… love is the secret ingredient in Sulaimani chai, a Malabar tea. This no milk tea is widespread in Kerala and has it’s influence from persian and arab nations. The tea is brewed with assorted absolute spices in black tea powder. It is brewed till it gets the golden color. A squeeze of fresh lemon juice just before serving makes it super rejuvenating. This black tea is made with cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, and ginger with regular tea leaves.

Mumbai’s Cutting Chai

A popular half cup/glass chai in Mumbai, brewed lovingly with fresh ground elaichi, saunf, lemongrass, or ginger. In Mumbai, ‘Cutting Chai’ is half a cup of tea. Tea is life and, in Mumbai people drink more than three cups. Hence ‘Cutting Chai’ makes sense, small portion, flavourful and fragrant. This concoction is made with tea leaves, ginger, cardamom or any other available or suitable spices with milk.

So, I sign off, going to drink my next steaming cuppa chai and leave you with this popular meme to enjoy with your tea.
What is your blood group?
Tea positive!
Follow Priya Rajendran

6 thoughts on “A Chai Lovers Soliloquy

  1. I love this. I am not as familiar with Indian teas but there is an Indian market by my house and there is an entire aisle of various teas, which can be overwhelming. Thank you for giving me a path forward when I visit the market again soon. I love Indian spices and foods! Such amazing flavors. Now I can broaden my horizons with tea as well.

  2. Pingback: A Maratha’s Food Memoirs | Art of How To

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