T hough the monsoon has “officially” been here since the first week of June and the weather guys (not the ones on TV but the guys doing real scientific predictions) have been giving us all sorts of explanations as to why the rains aren’t quite here! Whatever the reasons, the monsoons have suddenly set in here with a vengeance this last week. Its much cooler now and the perfect weather for hot, spicy tea, not that I need much of an excuse to drink tea. I have done a post on South Indian Filter Kapi/ Coffee, where I mentioned that while I do have the occasional cup or “tumbler” of coffee, the tipple of my choice is and always will be “chai”. It would be unfair in the general scheme of things on my blog for me to ignore tea so this post is dedicated to Indian chai. It is a bit unusual to find tea lovers in coffee kingdom and Palakkad Iyers are famous for their filter coffee. My sister and I are the only staunch tea drinkers in our homes. My husband drinks the occasional cup of tea because I make it, but he’s really a coffee lover. So, how did I become a tea drinker? I’m really not sure. I remember that tea was served in the evenings at my maternal grandmother’s house, yet my mother and her sisters prefer coffee. The same goes for my dad. I think I started drinking tea in college. Quite a few of us would get together for studying late at night, and someone would offer to make tea for us all. Tea was supposed to keep us awake, but it never worked that way for me. My friends would be up all night and I would have slept off around midnight! Even today, a late cup of tea or coffee has no effect at all on my night’s sleep. I even suspect that I actually sleep better!!
Chai, as tea is commonly known in India, is supposed to have origins as a beverage in China. According to one legend, a breeze blew some tea leaves into a Chinese emperor’s pot of boiling water. He found the resulting brew tasty and to have medicinal qualities as well. Another legend says that a Buddhist monk called Bodhidharma went to China for meditation. During meditation, he found himself falling asleep. To prevent this, he cut off his eyelids and threw them down. The eyelids are supposed to have sprouted into tea bushes! Whatever the true origin of tea, there is no doubt that it is a popular beverage all over the world in its various avatars.
Apparently, tea was growing in the wild in India as far back as 1598, according to Jan Huyghen van Linschoten, a Dutch traveler who noted that the Indians ate the leaves as a vegetable with garlic and oil and boiled the leaves to make a brew. And in 1788, a British botanist Joseph Banks discovered that tea plants were growing well in the British colonized parts of North east India and even suggested that tea could be cultivated in India. It was only when the monopoly of trading in tea from China was no longer viable, that the British woke up to the possibilities of growing tea in India. They imported tea seedlings from China which unfortunately couldn’t survive in India and ultimately the native Assam variety of tea was cultivated successfully. This eventually led to tea being cultivated in other areas including Darjeeling, the Kangra Valley and the Nilgiris. Today India is one of the largest producers of tea in the world. (Source: The Teamuse )
There are three main geographically different tea growing regions (there are others) in India and they each produce very distinct teas. The fine and delicately flavoured Darjeeling tea that is grown on the foothills of the Himalayas (North Eastern India) is one. The other is a rich full bodied tea grown in Assam in the far North Eastern part of India. Most Indians, who like their tea strong, prefer this variety. The third variety is the fragrant and flavoursome Nilgiris tea which is grown on the slopes of the Nilgiris (Blue Mountains) of South India.
There are many ways of making and drinking tea depending on which variety is being used and which part of the world it is being drunk. One example is the Tibetan butter tea or Po Cha which is made with yak butter, milk and salt. Even within India, there are numerous ways chai is made and drunk. Some drink it out of the cup while many enjoy drinking it from the saucer. This may be socially a no-no, but for the person who’s drinking it, this is the height of tea heaven. Then there are many who will drink tea only out of a glass, nothing else would do. While many people insist that there is a “correct” way to making tea, I feel that whatever method makes the tea that satisfies a person is the “perfect” method for that person.
Having said this, I love my tea steaming hot, strong, milky and not too sweet. Masala in my chai would be an added bonus. I really don’t know what’s in my chai masala because I buy a freshly made blend from a spice shop in Kochi (the 4th picture here is my spice shop in Kochi). My untrained palate recognizes cardamom, ginger, clove in it but the rest is a mystery. Again, there are many varieties of chai masala, but most have these three spices plus others. The best tea with spices, in my opinion, is what is called Irani chai and served in Irani cafes in certain parts of India. Perhaps the name comes from the fact that type of tea was made famous by Irani immigrants to India.
Irani chai is made by boiling together black tea leaves, milk, sugar, cardamom and ginger. The resulting tea, drunk piping hot and in small quantities, is sweet, milky, thick and out of this world. I know you can find good Irani chai in Mumbai, but I understand that Hyderabad is famous for it. Hyderabad apparently also serves a version of Irani chai called “Khade Chammach” (meaning standing spoon in Hindi) so called because it has so much sugar in it that spoon would stand upright in it!!
How do I make my tea then? Depends on my mood, really! Most of the time I drink it plain, sometimes with chai masala and some other times with ginger and cardamom. The masala chai and the cardamom and ginger version are especially soothing if taken when suffering from a cold. I also like iced tea (made at home with a hint of lemon, chilled but without the ice), which is perfect for the Indian summer, but not the commercial fruity and flavoured varieties that seem to have taken over the supermarket shelves!
These days, we even get something being marketed under the name of “dessert” tea (whatever that means) in very exotic sounding flavours. These are basically smelly premixed powdered milk + tea + sugar + god knows what, to be mixed up in boiling water.
Getting back to the matter of making tea, I prefer to make mine using tea leaves. I really do not like using tea dust, as the tea made with this is almost always too strong and no matter how well I strain the decoction, there’s always a bit of residue at the bottom of my tea cup! I don’t think tea bags are filled with good quality tea (I may be wrong here) and find that “dip” chai (this is what the tea sellers on Indian trains call tea made with teabags) doesn’t have much flavour and is never strong enough.
Plain Chai: (to serve 3) 2 tsp black tea leaves 2 cups water 1 cup hot milk sugar as per taste
Boil water in a pan. Add the tea leaves and allow to simmer for a minute. Take off the stove. Strain the tea decoction into another vessel. Add the milk and sugar and mix to dissolve sugar. Then pour the tea into another vessel from a slight distance and back a couple of times to create a froth, pour out into tea cups and serve hot. This brings the temperature of the tea down to drinkable levels while improving the taste tremendously. The tea honestly does taste better. I don’t have any scientific explanations but it works. Just be careful while doing this, or you may end up with no tea to drink, a messy floor to clean up and being scalded in the bargain (and perhaps a visit to the hospital)! Very occasionally I do put all the above ingredients (with some cardamom and ginger) together and bring it the boil, simmer it for a minute and then strain it to make tea, pseudo Irani style! I can see some raised eyebrows and a few shocked looks at my tea making (maybe murdering) style, but I like my tea this way!!
Masala Chai/ Tea: (to serve 3) Use the same ingredients as for plain chai but add 1½ tsp chai masala along with the tea leaves. Then strain the decoction and proceed with making the tea.
Cardamom and Ginger Chai: (to serve 3) Again, use the ingredients for plain chai but add ½ “ piece of crushed ginger and crushed seeds from 4 cardamom pods along with the tea leaves. Strain the decoction and continue making the tea. So try any of these ways of drinking chai, or explore the world of tea to come up with your own special and perfect “cuppa”.
I end this post with a quotation by Samuel Johnson, an English author (1709 – 1784) who described himself as “A hardened and shameless tea-drinker, who has for twenty years diluted his meals with only the infusion of this fascinating plant; whose kettle has scarcely time to cool; who with tea amuses the evening, with tea solaces the midnight, and with tea welcomes the morning.”