Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Chai Story

My day begins with a cup of tea; well actually it begins with the ritual of fixing that perfect cuppa. Out come the tea set and the tea-cosy. Boiling water is poured over tea leaves and allowed to soak in the tea pot to bring out the flavour, not a minute more, not a minute less. Not too milky, a dash of sugar and the perfect brew is ready. For the husband and me, it is almost like an initiation of the long day ahead. Sipping our tea, we pore over the newspapers (we read three of them), have a good laugh or a heated debate as we leaf through the news.

We make it a point to wake up early, just so that we have enough time to luxuriate in the stillness of the morning. It is our moment together, before the day comes crashing on to us, submerging us with its breathless pace and sometimes its unexpectedness.

Most of us have an almost symbiotic relationship with our cup of beverage. As the hot liquid surges through our insides, it energizes us and awakens us nerve by nerve. An early wintry morning and chances are you will spot roadside tea vendors surrounded by the odd rickshaw-wallah or a mason on their way to work. They sit hunched on the pavement, with their hands wrapped around the steaming glass, sipping the hot frothy tea in respectful silence, as if paying obeisance.

Quite a few of us are addicted to our cup of chai – a splitting headache and you reach out for it to unclog your nerves. It rains incessantly, the temperature dips and you yearn for adrak ki chai with assorted savouries. If your nagging cough and cold is making you feel wretched, buss ek cup chai is expected to do wonders.

Remember travelling by train and having tea in khullars? Even if the tea was mostly ghastly, the earthen khullars made it special. And now thanks to modernisation courtesy our ex Railway minister Laloo Prasad Yadav, we get to have our tea in Styrofoam cups. It’s still as ghastly and I can barely take a sip. Chai in Styrofoam cups is not chai!!!!

When it comes to tea, we all have our rigid preferences – in North the chai is usually boiled with milk, sugar and assorted spices, till it reaches a thick consistency. Down south, people may prefer filter coffee, but tea from Niligiris has its niche. Bhadralok Bongs are loyal to Darjeeling tea and turn their nose up at any other variety. The road-side vendors do a frothy version, with dollops of sugar and top it with a dash of malai. The office version is an indifferent concoction which most of us have out of desperation. The tea bag variety is a convenient, unmessy option. You can have your tea hot, cold, green, black, with lemon, herbs or as a fruit infusion – the options are limitless.

Tea is mostly an Asian preference with Europeans slowly warming up to it. On our last trip to Copenhagen, we had Sri Lankan Darjeeling tea (whatever that means) almost every day for breakfast and were we glad. Recently I was reading about a Taiwanese version called the bubble tea. It’s an iced, sweet, frothy concoction flavoured with either milk or fruit flavours and has tapioca balls for the added crunch. It sounds gross to me, but hey, to each one his own.

With the advent of Barista and its innumerable cousins, is chai gradually losing its flavour? After all, we are spoilt for choice, with coffee from all corners of the world vying for our attention. Arabica, Italian, Columbian, Ethiopian, take your pick. I remember how my parents used to have long adda sessions with friends, over endless cups of tea. Me, I can’t remember the last time I served tea to my friends.

But even though we may have acquired an improved cosmopolitan outlook and prefer sipping a Segafredo mocha in an upscale mall or entertain our friends with Pinot Noir, yet it is the ubiquitous chai that defines the essence of India. The full-full Indian brew that knows no boundaries, no class, we have no qualms in having it even from a road side shanty. Each stall will have its unique taste, each home will have its distinct brew, but it is chai that unifies this chaotic, heady country called India.

A special thanks to Prateek, for the inspiration.
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  1. Nicely put. Tea can have different varieties and is an Indian drink. But people in other areas are now warming up to tea too as you mentioned. Tea has always been an upper class drink and I am not counting the roadside varieties. Coffee is more of a casual drink.

    Roadside tea is like roadside omelette. Have it with all your senses shut.

  2. hey read my petrol story... i bet you fall down from ur chair ;-)


    please do vote for me if you like it... :-)

  3. here it is the tea that is frothing, not your sarcasm and fury....
    a very laid back easy going post...
    nice to read with a cup of hot chai!

  4. nice post to enjoy with a hot cup of tea right in the morning :) I am coffee person but like all indians, do crave for a 'kadak' chai once in a while. If you are a teaoholic, i recommend you try Tetley's Redbush tea..very refreshing!

  5. Prateek...Roadside tea is more like flavoured sugar syrup.

    Mario...Ok, will try to fall off my chair :)

    magiceye...I am craving for a cup of Early Gray.

    Wildflower...In India, Tetley is marketed by Tata and they do desi versions.

    And I love my coffee too (not the instant variety though).

  6. I am specially addicted to tea...although nowadays the morning gym has forced me to cut out the habit

    But one sad thing is trhe qulaity of tea varies drastically from what u get in the estates. The reason being the good quality is shipped off
    who said the white men left!!

  7. Brits said, all time is tea time.
    The most awaited cup of tea is the first one in the morning with a biscuit.
    To me, the best tea experience is at Chai Bar at Statesman house and one at the Hayyat, RK Puram

  8. Jon...Oh yea, the full bodies taste that you get is something else.

    B K Chowla...Chai Bar sounds very exciting. Would love to read your account.

  9. Wow, you're right. Although I haven't given it any thought, my morning cuppa coffee is the most important thing in the world!

    Me, being a girl from Coorg (we grow coffee there), I'd have to say I've more coffee than blood running through my circulatory system. I become a maniac, and the day seems dull and slow.

    very well written, stirred up my senses.. to get another dose of caffeine. Thank you :)

  10. Chai!!!!! The fuel that drives me all day. When I was looking around for a domain for my site after pondering up various names over a cup of chai, my wife quipped why not name it Ginger Chai and voila our GingerChai.com was born! I prefer piping hot ginger chai and ya am good at making it too!

    That reminds me I have written a post long back:


    Sip it!

  11. You make me yearn! Here in the US it's all but impossible to get the tea I know and love in India.

    You're asked a hundred questions - how much milk, what type of tea, temperature, x damn y and z.

    I have no idea! Just give me the tea that roadside shops give me in India and I'll be happy :)

  12. just a minute..lemme have a chaya n return..hey good post ya...:)

  13. That Srilankan tea is called "Dilmah". Actually Europeans have this tea culture from years. It might have started after colonialisation. But you wont believe here in europe, they put some greens/herbs into hot water and call it "tea". can your guess what tea is called in CZech Republic? its called "Chai". When my husband was here for the first time, his friends asked him whether he would like chai. he was very plesently surprised and when they gave him to drink it was hot water with some herbs with honey. :-p

  14. mazingout...ROFL @ more coffee than blood running through my circulatory system.

    Lakshmi...And you know what, the name Ginger Chai is what drew me to your blog.

    Bhagwad...Aww I know, in the US it's mostly the ghastly Lipton Yellow label tea.

  15. Ramesh...Thank Ya :D

    Bhavana...Ewww that's not chai!!!
    Yea there's a Dilmah brand as well. Love their Peach tea.

  16. You said it! Tea is so personal a brew that unless it is made the way you like it, you might end up having a headache! I personally prefer adrak chai all through the year! Helps keep acidity at bay, no matter how many cups you have in a day.

  17. When I was growing up, my parents did exactly the same! They got up in the morning, made that fresh aromatic cup of tea, and sat outside in the garden with their newspapers in their hand.

    As a little kid I tried hard to fit in, but that newspaper was just too boring! When I did take on to reading it, my mom was especially proud, though a little disappointed when I announced at a party that I read only the ads.

    Anyways, I still love my chai. I'm a regular at my roadside chaiwalla where he makes an interesting concoction (it's actually good!). The best part is that I get preferential customer status :)

  18. Zephyr...I stop at just one :))

    Kartikay...Even my daughter doesn't go beyond page 3. It breaks my heart.

  19. Absolutely. I actually have chai almost every night at the night-canteen in my institute BEFORE I finally go to bed. It's the last adda for the day with my friends!
    Nice one, Purba.

  20. After reading this I am going to the kitchen to make a cuppa - nothing to beat a cup of perfectly brewed tea.

  21. Not the chai type but i can understand what you mean. Have seen people who would say "Yaar ek cup chai mil jaye toh maza aajaye"

  22. Tea tea tea tea, tea hai wonderful...:-)

  23. R. Ramesh...Do we keep saying thanks in different languages and show off our linguistic skills? merci!


    Dhiraj...Like the "not the chai type" :))

    Giribala...Hai na?

  24. I've never been a fan of Chai but I understand the love for beverages. And waking up early to spend time with your husband...that's very romantic.

  25. Chai has this uncanny ability to relax you and help unwind that many tough problems can be resolved over cup of Hot Chai.

  26. I like the desi chai where milk & tea are boiled together to make kadak chai!

  27. well written!Tea is my favourite also.I take it to boost my creative expression.

  28. Nethra...It's only recently I have taken to drinking chaa and don't go beyond a cup. For me it's an acquired taste.

    Saras..The solution to world's niggling problems lies in a cup of tea :))

    S R Ayyangar...Desi chai is good for a change.

    Arpana...Thanks :))

  29. there is lot in common between Keralites and the Bongs...one of them is tea...after an operation, the first thing a patient is allowed to drink is tea made in the way you write about
    tea in other parts as in AP is boiled till the raw taste of tea goes...and now I hate Tea...I have heard that if boiled it is poison!

  30. Is it really? Delhites mostly prefer boiled, spiced tea.

  31. I prefer black tea with jaggery...but these days have to satisfy with tea bags... yeah, for headache, tea work wonders :D

  32. Black tea with jaggery? that's an interesting combination. Would love to try it someday.

  33. I'm not a regular tea/coffee drinker. I only drink tea during exam time. It takes away the stress!

  34. I am not a tea drinker. Never have. I used to drink lots of coffee but gave it up. Now we 3... me and my two daughters are addicted to cold coffee.... home made or Barista or whatever. BUT whenever my 3 sisters get together there r gr8 tea sessions with them wanting to brew it themselves to their perfect taste. the only tea i enjoy is chinese.. after a sumptuous chinese meal.

    I agree.... the coffee revolution is slowly taking over in urban India.

  35. Three newspapers! Morning person! No wonder! I so miss the kullars!

    How symbiotic relationship?

  36. Abha... Your tea sessions with your sisters sounds like a whole lot of fun.

    Bunty...I miss the kullars too..There's tea shop in an uppity mall in Kolkata, that serves it's tea in kullars. The tea sucks but sitting on a mora and sipping your tea from a kullar...priceless.

    Symbiotic as in the cup of chai makes them think, feel, It is like fuel to them.

  37. Hi Purba I shall be glad to have this content posted in my online newspaper please contact me on theindoaustimes@gmail.com

  38. another interesting post on Tea!
    dint know having-tea is such a personal experience: as relishing as those childhood memories and as warm a moment as being with mother!

    as commented by smbdy above, I too being a pakka delhite prefer masala chai, mostly - adrak. black pepper n cinnamon too!

    theres a complete chai enthusiast @ chaikidukaan.com

  39. Very true! Tea, despite its Chini origin is as Indian as it gets. And nothing beats the taste of tea in an earthen kulhar, especially when bought off a tea boy during a long train journey :)

    Enjoyed reading the post!

  40. I think each tea drinking nation thinks of tea as their very own drink...like the English, Indian, Chinese...we each have developed a cultural bond with the drink...and so true you are when you say most of us have a symbiotic relationship with our cuppas :-) By the way I am Suchi and new to your blog....great space :-)

  41. The title of this post attracted me.Brewing my perfect cup--it is a ritual for me too.Sadly,i cannot sit back and have tea come to me because it has to be made my way by me.


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