Angrez chale gae, par chai chhod gaye…A hindi saying which translates to – The British have gone but have left behind chai or tea.
Chai is more than a drink for Indians. It resonates a feeling. This hot drink is simmered or boiled with equal parts of milk, water and loose-tea leaves, sugar and aromatic spices. Poured in tea cups or little chai glasses and accompanied by snacks or farsan (popular Western India savoury snacks), or simply the good old Parle-G biscuits.
All important things are discussed over chai in India. Be it politics, neighbourhood gossip, heartbreaks or new beginnings. Referring to a popular hindi film song, "Isiliye mummy ne meri, tumhe chai pe bulaya hai..." translates to - a young girl singing that her mother is inviting someone over chai to talk about a marriage proposal - you will know how important tea time is. A unique yet ubiquitous culture, close to every Indian heart.
A quick look at the origin of Tea:
Chai is a word derived from the Chinese word Cha, which means tea. Tea was imported from China to Western countries as per History of tea in India by Brajinder Singh and R.K Sud. China and brought it with them to India by leading commercial tea plantations, in the 1830s, of Darjeeling and Assam.
Adapting to Indian taste buds, this hot drink became popular in cities, villages amongst the elderly and young, alike. You can spot a chai walla (a Hindi term for someone who sells tea) with a chaidaan (aluminium tea kettle) at every nook and corner of a street, at least pre-Covid-19.
Tea in North India
‘Ek ka do’ and ‘makhan-maar ke’ in Hindi translates to one by two and filled with cream, respectively. That’s how people in Delhi like their tea. It is easy to spot tea-vendors or chaiwaalas outside big multinational companies and why not, it provides a steady income for their tea businesses. Many office-goers prefer stepping out to tapris or chaiwaalas for their 4pm tea break.
Chai in North and Central India is populary accompanied with samosas (potato filled savoury pastry), kachori (deep-fried savouries), bread pakora (spiced batter and deep-fried bread) or just a simple rusk.
Chai at Indian Railways stations
If you have had the opportunity to travel by the Indian railways, then station waali (belonging to) chai cannot be missed. "Kharab se kharab chai pijiye," in Hindi, translates to drink the worst kind of tea, is a popular marketing gimmick used by tea vendors to catch attention. You can find them between Tatanagar and Rourkela stations (cities in Jamshedpur and Odisha) of Eastern India. Earlier tea or chai at Indian stations were served in Kulhad or clay cups, known to be sustainable and cost effective at the same time.
Tea culture of Eastern India
Lebu cha or lemon chai is a popular tea-based drink in Kolkata and Eastern parts of India. It is a spiced and salted lemon tea, that is brewed with delicate tea leaves, which is populary accompanied by momos (a type of savoury dumplings). It is at tapris (tea stalls) or what is popularly know as Addas (slang for meeting point) you will find the elderly discuss politcial theories and everything remotely concerning the world at large.
Tea culture in West India
It’s impossible to truly enjoy monsoon in Mumbai without a cup of hot chai. Of course, the city is most famous for introducing the cutting chai – a half glass of hot tea, laced with warm spices to make it strong – but other than this, the tea culture in Maharashtra allows you to enjoy a sip of tea no matter where you are, especially since tea stalls or amruttulyas are in abundance.
Cutting chai is often paired with street food snacks such as biscuits or vada pav.
Popular tea types in western India include masala chai, nagori chai, tandoori chai and kulhad chai.
Tea culture in South India
When you visit the Southern parts of India for a simmering cup of tea, the tea culture is a little more different, and chai is called chaya. Especially since it is accompanied with snacks and delicacies native to the region. While masala chai isn’t as popular in the South, tea is often brewed just with milk and sugar. Karnataka also has several tea-exclusive food outlets, where they accommodate the various kinds of tea from all over India.
Of course, each Southern state has its own speciality. For example, the Nilgri tea (or blue mountain tea) is dark and aromatic with a strong flavour, whereas the Sulaimani tea in Kerala has a hue of amber, and is made with the absence of milk and a dash of lemon. Legend has it that the Sulaimani arrived in Kerala, courtesy the Arab traders who would arrive with wares from the Middle East.
In Kerala, tea time is usually accompanied with banana fritters (pazhampori), lentil fritters (parippu vada), murukku (chakli), or any other savoury that balances the spice with a hot cup of sweet tea.
In the South, there are 3 tea estates in Karnataka, 4 in Tamil Nadu and 5 in Kerala, alone.
Tea in Indian pop culture
The popularity of chai or chaya is so massive that today it’s found its way into music and pop culture. Popular multilingual indie pop-folk band ‘When chai met toast’ incorporates the hot beverage into their title – which (when combined) signifies a blend of the Indian and Western culture – making it the key inspiration behind their music.
On another note, 2020 may have been all about lockdowns and restrictions, but it was also a time when people from all over the world got creative (and still are). The Malayalam rap song ‘Chaya evide’ – sung by Sujain C – became popular in July, and received over 30,000 views.
Other than this, tea has also found a spot in Indian cinema, where the favoured beverage was the key factor in the storylines of Bawarchi (1972), Miss India (2020), among others.
One of the best things about drinking a hot cuppa is that there’s a type for each mood. Yes, it may be termed as another hot beverage, but in India it’s a part of the culture. Some would say it even invokes a memory or an emotion. For the ones who are stressed, under the weather, or even those looking for a social gathering – there’s nothing a cup of tea can’t solve.