There are different ways of hospitality. Some cultures have different styles of greetings, while some others consider food or beverage offerings, while many others believe a comfortable seating is the best way to welcome guests, friends or family to their premises. Talking about India, this country believes in welcoming, comforting and greeting their guests with a very special beverage. This drink is so popular that it is served in almost every house of the country. Presenting you the elixir of Indian culture – Chai.
Unveiling the layers of this popular drink, it should be noted that Chai is the Indian version of commonly consumed tea. If we dig down to the brief history of tea, it first originated in China, where it was used as medicinal drink made from the leaves of Camellia sinensis, an evergreen shrub native to East Asia. Tea made from other plants such as chamomile, jasmine, rosehip, etc. are categorized under Herbal Tea. The consumption of tea in Indian history has been highlighted in the Indian texts from time to time dating back to thousands of years. But the commercialization of tea first began with the arrival of British East India Company. And today, India is the largest producers of tea in the world, with over 70% consumption in the country itself. [source: Wikipedia]
The large-scale production of tea began in Assam in 1820s by the British East India Company.
Enough with the history, now moving on to the preparation. The common preparation of tea requires adding boiling water to the tea leaves. But Indian chai requires more than just boiling water and tea leaves. Traditional medicinal plants such as Tulsi (holy basil), elaichi (cardamom), kali mirch (black pepper), mulethi (liquorice), pudina (mint), adrak (ginger), etc. can be added to enhance the flavour, aroma and overall taste. Sweeteners can be added as per taste. In India, chai is prepared by adding sweeteners out of various available options such as white sugar, brown sugar, artificial sweeteners, and gur (jaggery). One last ingredient that turns this common tea to Indian Masala Chai is milk. From boiling water to herbs to milk, each ingredient blends perfectly in medium heat and is boiled over and over to give a strong dark colour to it. The prepared chai is then filtered and ready to serve.
Chai is served in a variety of ways. In a public place, it is served in tea glasses which are specially designed for chai. They are so common, I am pretty sure you may not have seen it. Then, there’s kullad (cup made from clay), my personal favorite. Drinking chai from kullad adds the fragrance and taste of mitti (hardened clay) to it which is weird but adds freshness to it. In households and offices, ceramic cups are used for servings. In some villages, people prefer to drink chai in steel glass as well.
From small tapri (local shops or thela) to high-end cafe, chai is served everywhere. There are different ways of enjoying this refreshing beverage. Some people take chai with glucose or Marie biscuits. Other than that, there are khasta (or rusk, a twice-baked bread), baked biscuits, sandwiches, teacakes, kachori, and Indian crackers like khakra, matthi, and many more. Basically, chai can be combined with a number of side dishes or snacks. So, I’ll leave you to experiment on that.
Some people prefer chai while smoking, which they claim is a good combination. Weird but true.
The popularity of chai in India is not recent, but there are increased number of start-ups and new business ideas that have emerged in recent years. Well furnished, themed and cafe-like restaurants have entered the market. Chai Point, Teabox, and Chaayos have multiple outlets across the country and among them many other local tea cafe’ are gaining popularity. With additional features like free home delivery, offers on chai-snacks combo, and loyalty programs, these business ideas are gaining acceptance among people.
Coming on to the varieties and flavours of chai, this traditional Indian beverage comes in variety of flavours. The most common and widely consumed Masala chai is a blend of milk tea with elaichi, cinnamon, dried ginger and/or black pepper. Elaichi chai (cardamom tea) and Adrak chai (ginger tea) are made by adding only one particular type of herb unlike masala chai. There is one known as tandoori chai which might grab your attention. The preparation of this chai is based on an innovative idea, where chai is heated in a kullad (clay cup) and allowed to flow out from the brim, overflow and drip over through the walls of kullad, and finally collected at the bottom in another wide open utensil, therefore giving the slightly burnt aroma of mitti (clay) infused into it, giving it the flavour of tandoor (clay oven), hence the name.
Other than milk tea, chai is also prepared without milk in some regions of the country. Kashmiri Kahwa is one such variety. It’s a form of green tea infused with almonds, clove, cinnamon, cardamom and strands of saffron (Kashmiri saffron is cultivated in Pampore and is recognized for its high-quality). Sulemani chai, also known as Ghava, is black tea with lemon, but cardamom, cinnamon and Tulsi or mint leaves can also be added. It is mostly served in Arabic countries but in India, it is popular in Kerala and Hyderabad where it is considered a good digestive after a heavy meal. Even in Mumbai, Sulemani chai is served in Irani cafe’s.
That’s way too much information about a simple beverage, right? But there’s a reason why it is liked so much. This drink is not just a beverage, it connects people. Whether it’s a group of friends just catching up or a brother coming to his sister’s home for Raksha Bandhan, or a son returning home after a long time, or perhaps a rough day at work, a warm welcome with chai is a good gesture of hospitality. With so many stories told over a cup of chai, this magical beverage has spread its roots deeper within our culture. It truly is the Elixir of Indian Culture.