In the vast tapestry of Indian culture, tea is not just a beverage but a way of life. Beyond its refreshment value, tea in India is an ancient ritual that transcends social barriers and connects people from all walks of life – holding a spirit of togetherness that infuses each cup. 

Origins and Historical Significance of tea in India

Legend has it that the discovery of tea in India dates back over 5,000 years when a curious emperor names Shen Nung accidentally discovered tea leaving falling into a pot of boiling water. Fascinated by the result of the infusion, he tasted it and was instantly captivated by its soothing properties. 

Historically the origins of tea in India can be traced back to the early colonial period when the British East India Company began cultivating tea in the northeastern regions of Assam and Darjeeling. Initially, tea was introduced as an alternative to coffee which was primarily imported from the Middle East. Over time, India emerged as one of the largest tea-producing countries. 

Chai Takes Center Stage

India’s love affair with tea soon turned into a full-blown obsession, embedding itself within their culture. “Chai”, derived from the Chinese word “cha”, meaning tea, became a symbol of hospitality, warmth and acted as a catalyst for social interactions. 

Indian chai is not the milky blend we are used to in Britain. It is a delightful concoction of black tea, milk, sugar, and a blend of aromatic spices like cardamom, ginger, cinnamon and cloves.

One of the best ways to experience the true essence of Indian tea culture is by indulging in street-side chai. Pavement tea stalls or “chaiwallahs” offer a front-row seat to witness the bustling city life while sipping a piping hot chai chai. The lively banter, the clinking of cups, and the hustle and bustle of the surroundings create an ambience that’s hard to replicate elsewhere. Don’t forget to pair your chai with local delicacies like samosas, pakoras, or biscuits.

The cooking of Indian tea.
The cooking of Indian tea.

Tea is offered as a gesture of welcome to guests and visitors, demonstrating the importance of sharing and bonding. The act of pouring and serving tea is considered an art form, reflecting grace, respect, and care. 

In some Indian households, tea is believed to have healing properties and is offered to soothe and comfort those feeling unwell. 

Ayurveda, the ancient Indian system of medicine, recognizes the therapeutic properties of tea. Herbal infusions like Tulsi (holy basil), Moringa, and Ashwagandha teas are known for their rejuvenating and healing effects. These natural blends not only satisfy the taste buds but also promote overall well-being, making tea an integral part of holistic living.

Regional Variations

India’s diverse regions have their own distinct tea-drinking customs, each offering a unique experience. 

In Kashmir, traditional salted tea, also known as “noon chai” is deeply ingrained in the picturesque region of India. It is prepared by boiling green tea leaves with milk, and then adding a pinch of salt, along with spices like cardamom and cinnamon for flavour. The resulting brew has a distinct pink hue and a rich, creamy texture. Served in traditional shallow cups called “khos,” the tea is often enjoyed with local bread like “kulcha” or “bakarkhani”. 

In Rajasthan, “Masala Chai”, meaning spiced tea, is a popular choice. It is a fragrant blend of black tea, milk, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and ginger.  In Rajasthan, the preparation and serving of Masala Chai is considered an art form, with each household having its own secret recipe handed down through generations. The tea is brewed slowly over a low flame, allowing the flavours to meld together and create a harmonious balance. The rich aroma fills the air, drawing family members and friends to gather around for a delightful cup of Masala Chai. 

Preparation and Serving tea in India

Tea in India is often brewed using loose tea leaves rather than tea bags, which is believed to enhance the flavour and aroma. The tea leaves are typically steeped in boiling water and simmered for a specific duration to extract the desired strength. Milk, sugar, and spices are then added according to personal preference. The final concoction is strained and poured into cups or small glasses, sometimes accompanied by snacks like biscuits or savoury snacks known as “chai-time” treats.

A Social Bond

How Indian tea is served.

In Indian society, tea acts as a catalyst for social interactions and bonding. From street-side tea stalls to high-end tea lounges, people from all walks of life come together to savour a cup of tea. It is during these moments that friendships are forged, business deals are struck, and family ties are strengthened. Sharing tea transcends social hierarchies, promoting unity and harmony among individuals.