“Yaar I’m having a headache and am on a creative block. Koi chai pilaa do!” is what I said before making myself a cup of ginger tea and sitting down to write this blog. I realised that everyone in my family resorted to a steaming cup of chai as an answer to all problems and on all occasions without thinking twice. During the exam season a few months ago, we noticed that students all around drank at least 5-6 cups of tea every day! It was then that we realised how important tea is in our culture, and how all Indians drink tea as a stressbuster and antidepressant.
History of chai in India
I’m sure everyone knows that tea is not an Indian beverage, it finds its roots in China. Although the consumption of this beverage started in China, the kadak adrak, masala and elaichi chai we make is proudly Indian. The introduction of tea is one good thing the British did, even though it was for selfish reasons. They wanted to end the monopoly China had over tea, and they introduced tea plantations in India. A different variant of the same species was already growing in Indian soil which made it the perfect place to introduce tea plantations. Nurseries started getting set up in 1840 in upper Assam.
Chai culture in India
Now that we have our history in place, let’s look at how Indian tea slowly became an integral part of all traditions and rituals. Starting the day with a steaming cup of kadak chai is one thing that unites all of India. Not only morning tea, but also a cup of cutting chai is an important evening ritual. As the clock strikes 4, you can hear chaiwalas moving around shops selling cutting chai, and people from the corporate clan taking a chai and sutta break at chai thela. Evening chai time is break time for most working people.
Apart from the chai culture in offices, tea is an important part in cultural and household settings. If you take a walk through the streets early in the morning, you will be bombarded by the aromas of tea being made as early morning rituals in households; the mouth-watering aroma of boiling milk, ginger, and cardamom accompanied by the crinkle of a fresh newspaper being opened and bhajans and chants playing in the background.
Haven’t met your friend in a long time? You will find yourself calling her and saying “chal aaj chai aur samosa pe milte hai”. Tea is important in formal family meetings as well. In a traditional arranged marriage set-up, when the boy goes to the girl’s house to meet her, she makes tea for the whole family and samosa is served with it. Often, the girl’s cooking skills and her personality is judged based on how she makes the tea. Well of course this tradition is obsolete now, but if the whole personality of a person is judged based on tea, you can imagine the importance tea has in all families.
On asking a customer of ours what tea means to her, she gave a broad smile and said ‘jannat’. For her, a chai break in the evening was a time to rejuvenate and hangout in the mess. Chai time was the time when students from the whole college would gather after a long day of classes, before they would go back to their rooms to complete their assignments, to chill and hangout for a while. She says that if they had a creative block or if anyone was exhausted, they would wait eagerly for Chai time. Tea was very important to her even during long exam nights when they would stay up for long hours. Due to the sugar content and small amount of caffeine, it would keep her up and act as a companion during the all nighters she would pull. Not only in the office or work life but also in student life, chai as a beverage and chai time are important rituals.
Irani chai and Hyderabad
Irani chai was brought to India from Persia. The Persians came to Hyderabad from the Bombay port, bringing their culture of Irani cafes in Bombay and Hyderabad. The famous Leopold cafe bombed in the 2008 Mumbai attacks was also originally an Irani cafe. Coming back to apna Hyderabad, you will find Irani cafes in every nook and corner of the old city. These cafes typically sold only Irani chai, Osmania biscuits ( mildly salty biscuits a perfect companion to the sweet Irani chai), bun maska and some other light snacks. The architecture of these cafes was also peculiar and would stand out from the other cafes. They traditionally had tiles with geometric patterns and colourful stained glasses on windows.
Irani chai is marked with thick milk boiled on a low flame for a very long time. The leaves are boiled separately in water with some cardamom. After both are boiled separately, the flavoured water is added to the thick aromatic milk. This is the traditional way of making Irani chai which makes it different from normal chai. Many cafes have stopped using this method due to a lack of resources. The Irani cafe culture has also come down in Hyderabad due to the emergence of other westernised cafes. Cafes like Kadak House are trying to revive the Irani cafe culture and introducing it in the more urbanised and newer parts of the city. Along with Irani chai, we serve Osmania biscuits and samosa among other things. A perfect place for some “chai pe charcha”.