The 1.4 billion people who live in India consume about 20% of the tea produced globally, including most of the tea grown there. Consumption averages 840 grams per person annually. Growth slowed to 2.5% in 2020—much weaker than in previous years—largely due to retail closures, but India has not lost its taste for tea, it is just prepared more at home. Aravinda Anantharaman takes us on a tea tour that reveals there is lot more to savor than chai.
Many of India’s Teas are a Far Cry from Chai
India’s association with chai is a long and strong one. Chai connotes milky sweetness, a social break in the day, train journeys, spices … but here’s the thing, it’s not the only kind of tea that enjoys cultural popularity in the country. Here are a few teas from across India, with deep cultural affinities … and quite a far cry from chai.
In the South, coffee is the popular beverage except in Kerala where tea is a staple. The Sulaimani is a tea from Kerala’s mapilla Muslim community in the Malabar region. While it’s origin is undocumented, there are references to its connection with the Arabian beverage called the ghava made with dates and black pepper. There was sea trade between the Arabian and the Malabar coast so there could be some truth here. Kerala is also home to spices like cardamom and pepper and the Sulaimani celebrates this — it is made with black tea, cardamom and cinnamon, lime juice and sugar or honey. Some add a pinch of saffron too.
Moving west towards Gujarat and Maharashtra states, where the Parsi community are based offers another version. Tea for the Parsis in India is choi, black tea with mint and lemongrass, and if available, spearmint. Famous for their baking skills, the Parsis enjoy their tea with something sweet, a repertoire of dishes like kumas, mawa cake and poppatjis (each with a story of its own). They also enjoy a proper English-style tea service Choi is made with any black tea — leaf or CTC or dust — steeped in boiling water along with the mint and lemongrass. It is sweetened and served with a spot of milk.
In the North, Kashmir has the kahwa. It’s not an everyday drink but an occasional one, usually served before and after a feast. The kahwa is made with a bit of green tea but saffron and cardamom pods are the mainstay of this beverage. It’s sweetened and garnished with slivers of almond. Sometimes a little milk is added making it the doodh or milk kahwa. As befitting its celebratory status, the kahwa is served from a beautiful samovar.
But everyday tea in Kashmir is the noon chai or salt tea. This is made from a green tea concentrate. To serve, milk and salt are added to the concentrate. The tea has a faint pink colour from the addition of soda, and is enjoyed for the warmth it delivers.
Salt tea is also the preferred tea in the northwestern parts, in places like Ladakh. Sharing ties with Tibet, the tea here is po cha or salted butter tea.
In the East, where so much of India’s tea grows, there’s no dearth of tea choices. However, in Kolkata, street side tea is lebu cha which is lemon black tea with a touch of black salt — no milk but a rather inviting beverage with spicy tangy sweetness to it.
Further east, tea is preferred black and smoked. In Manipur and parts of Assam and Nagaland, tea has been enjoyed even before the British brought it here. Tea is made from leaves harvested from wild-grown bushes. Its withered, dried, and stuffed into bamboo and allowed to smoke over the stove for an extended period. Smoky black tea is a staple.
I suspect there are more teas that would make it to this list. Which just emphasizes the truth about tea — that its a versatile beverage and its place in a culture comes from how they have made it their own.
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