Tea in India is as Varied as the Country’s Culture
This article was commissioned by Sputnik International:
India is the second largest producer of tea in the world. Teas originating from different regions in the country each possess unique attributes owing to the differences in geographic and climatic conditions. There is an equivalent diversity in the way tea is prepared and relished across the nation.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that India is a nation of tea drinkers, considering that the domestic market consumes about 70 percent of the tea that is produced in the country. And India is the second largest producer of tea in the world, behind China. Furthermore the Indian tea industry is making a push to expand tea export to China from the current figure of nearly 30 percent of tea imported by China.
Meanwhile in India, tea is a part of daily routine. People drink tea at regular intervals for refreshment and it’s often accompanied with a hearty dose of snacks and conversations. Tea is offered to guests as a preferred welcome drink. At homes, kitchens rarely runout of tea leaves. At work, people hang around tea vending machines to take a break. Anywhere you go you can easily find a place that serves tea—from roadside tea stalls to iconic Irani cafes—tea joints serve as rendezvous points. Tea culture in India is so pervasive that the current ruling party had employed a pre-poll campaign titled ‘Chai pe Charcha,’ meaning ‘discussions over tea,’ in order to reach out to the electorate.
For the connoisseurs of tea, the country offers many varieties of tea. The major tea growing regions in India are Assam, Darjeeling, Nilgiri, Munnar, Sikkim, Dooars-terai, and Kangra. The differences in climate and geography of each region impart unique attributes to the tea that is produced there. Some of the teas have abiding worldwide popularity, especially Assam tea and Darjeeling tea.
The north-eastern state of Assam is one of the largest tea growing regions in the world and is renowned for its black tea. The tropical climate and heavy rainfall in Assam is conducive to lush tea plantations. Assam tea is strong, full-bodied and malty, and is the popular choice for breakfast teas. Tea is generally harvested twice annually. The first flush is picked in March. The later flush is the prized harvest of the golden tipped tea leaves.
Darjeeling town, in the Himalayan foothills, produces an exotic and delicate tea variety that is exclusive to this region. The Tea Board of India ensures that only those batches of tea that have been entirely cultivated and processed in Darjeeling carry the label Darjeeling tea. It’s marketed as the Champagne of teas, and aptly so, considering that the tea output is as nuanced as the grapes grown in the Champagne region of France. The first flush that is harvested after spring rains has very delicate colour and aroma and is mildly astringent. The subsequent flushes grow in intensity of colour and body. In general Darjeeling tea is spicier but much lighter than Assam tea and is best prepared without milk. Assam tea on the other hand works well with or without milk.
Spiced-up Tea Preparations
The quintessential Indian ‘masala chai’ is a potent tea based beverage that is brewed with sugar, milk and any number of herbs and spices and is boiled multiple times over to make it strong, aromatic, and flavourful. The choice of infusions can give a different character to this tea preparation. Spices such as cardamom and cinnamon create pleasant and aromatic flavours. Addition of medicinal herbs turns an average cup of tea into a home remedy for maladies such as cold, cough and stomach upsets. The sugary and milky tea makes the bitter additives more palatable. Immunity boosting and soothing ingredients such as ginger and holy basil are commonly used. Many people are habitual of drinking three to four cups of masala tea everyday. In Maharashtra there is a way to counter such an addiction. People often order a ‘cutting chai’ that essentially means half a cup of tea. This reduces the caffeine intake by cutting the quantity of tea while keeping the frequency of drinking the same.
When Iranian Zoroastrian immigrants settled in India they brought with them Iranian cuisine especially their distinctive tea recipe known as Irani Chai. Iranian style cafes are popular in the bustling streets of the old city in Hyderabad and also parts of Mumbai and Pune. It’s said that a proper Irani chai can only be had at one of these cafes and no true-blue Iranian chef will ever disclose all the ingredients of this preparation. Yet broadly speaking the recipe involves mawa a dairy product that is made by heating whole milk and reducing it to about one-fifth volume. Tea is brewed continually from morning to evening over a slow flame. Milk is condensed and sweetened in a separate vessel. At the time of serving, a cup is filled with tea and a little mawa is added to it.
Tibetan Butter Tea
The trans-Himalayan regions of Ladakh, Zanskar, and Suru are known for their salty tea made with yak milk butter. Tea is boiled in water for several hours, sometime upto half-a-day, and is stored to be used later. At the time of serving, this brew is put into special tea churns along with yak milk butter and salt, and is manually mixed vigorously for a few minutes. The tea is served in traditional shallow bowls and had multiple times in a day. The high-fat content of the beverage is especially beneficial in the harsh and cold climate of these regions. Turns out that the latest fad of adding butter and oils to coffee is not a new idea and in several cultures people have known the benefit of gulping down good fat for centuries.
Tea Preparations in Kashmir
Kahwa is a traditional tea preparation in Kashmir. Green tea is brewed with saffron, cinnamon, cardamom and rose petals in a special kettle called samovar. It’s then served with crushed nuts and sugar or honey. These infusions are not only good for digestion but also well suited to the cold weather in the valley.
Noon Chai is the other variant of warm and soothing Kashmiri tea that is brewed with salt and nuts. It has a beautiful pink colour due to addition of a pinch of baking soda and milk.
In Kashmir tea is served in traditionally crafted shallow cups. In India, weather tea is had in formal cups, in clay or glass tumblers, or in disposable cups, it’s equally relished at home as well as outdoors. Given the variety in tea production, preparation, and the associated cultural practices it’s clear that tea is the country’s favoured warm beverage.