Hardly a day of mine ends without a cup of tea. I might have it either at home or at a roadside shack or a ‘hotel’. (The term hotel is preferred to restaurant in India.) I would say if tea is taken steaming hot (garam chai) it is one of the safest drinks to have anywhere. And at most places around here in Tamil Nadu, – including Karthik Hotel, Gorimedu where I have it often (photo below) – it costs just Rs. 10/-
Selling tea has been one of the low investment livelihood option for possibly millions of Indians and chai shop is a place where common people meet and share their views on everything.
India is the second largest producer of tea in the world, next to China and 70% of the production is consumed within India. During the months when the high passes of the Himalayas in Ladakh (Khardung la) and Sikkim (Nathu la) open the Indian Army serves tea free to all tourists visiting the highest motorable roads in the world and the Prime Minister of India Modi never shies from referring to his early days as a tea seller.
There was a joke about the custom of various nationals of the world that I heard long back and the following was the take about Indians: What would two Indians do when they meet? They will go to a chai shop!
Excerpts from an interesting article on Indian tea found on the website ‘The Better India’. I have also included some information mainly from the Wikipedia on the subject.
In India, chai is more than just a cup of tea to start the day – the thick sweet drink is an integral part of the rhythm of life. Everything, from neighbourly gossip to intense political discussions happens over a cup of tea. One of the oldest drinks in history, chai is also India’s most popular drink – the country consumes a whopping 837,000 tonnes of tea every year!
Given how ubiquitous a cup of chai is across India, and how chai drinking transcends all boundaries, it come as a surprise that not many Indians know about the fascinating history of tea in India.
Like the history of any famous beverage, the origins of chai are steeped in legend and contradictory accounts. In ancient India, chai was not the term used for the tea we know today, but for a healing concoction made by brewing herbs and spices, much like the traditional kada. In fact, the earliest chai did not contain any tea leaves, and its recipes differed according to the seasons and available ingredients.
There are also many other versions of the story of how the first cup of tea came about in India. According to Wikipedia the tea plant is native to East Asia and the Indian subcontinent, but the origins and history of tea are not precise.
One story goes that chai was developed by accident when a Buddhist monk on his way to China, observed the local ritual of chewing on a few wild leaves and tried it himself. On feeling rejuvenated, he decided to bring it back to India with him. Interestingly, tea is believed to have been first discovered by mistake 5000 years ago when the Emperor of China found tea leaves in his pot of boiling water. Known for his scientific curiosity, he proceeded to taste the drink and loved it. Before long, tea became a staple of Chinese culture.
Another legend has it that it was a king in ancient India (most likely Harshavardhana [590 – 647 CE], under whose patronage Nalanda University reached its zenith) who developed chai to remain alert during long court hours. Some historians also believe that Emperor Ashoka [304 – 232 BC] too had made it a part of his various peace treaties and court culture, a habit that eventually percolated down to common people.
Dutch traveller, Jogn Hughen Von Linschoten, who visited India in 1538 AD, corroborated this fact in his account of his visit to India. He wrote: “Indians ate the leaves as a vegetable with garlic and oil and boiled the leaves to make a brew.”
In the early 1820s, the British East India Company began large-scale production of tea in Assam, India, of a tea variety traditionally brewed by the Singpho people. The Singpho are a tribe who inhabit parts of India, China and Myanmar [Wikipedia].
As for the question when and where was milk added to tea, tea historians believe that the first iteration of chai with milk was developed by travellers and traders mostly likely from Gujarat, Maharashtra and Bengal, people who had easy access to good quality milk. With growing cross-country trade, sweet milky chai soon became the go-to drink, at least for the office bearers (and workers), to sustain a rather long day. Soon, masala chai (chai flavoured by aromatic spices) was born and was usually served with a sweet or savoury toast, a hybrid of Indian and British tradition.
However, it was not until [Sir] William McKercher invented the CTC (cut, tear, curl) method of making tea [1930-31], that tea became cheaper and India’s favourite brew became affordable for the masses. With Iranian Cafes and Coffee Houses putting it on the menu, chai also became the brew for intellectuals – it soon became a political ally in every meeting, discussion and even strikes.
So it was India’s CTCs that turned an entire generation (and generations thereafter) of Indians into ritual tea drinkers. Strong, flavoured, aromatic or all three together, the CTC blends made and consumed in India are among the best in the world and can go up to a couple of thousand rupees depending upon the blend of leaves, buds and granules (leaves give the aroma, buds the health, granules and dust the colour and strength).
The fact that chai is now not just a beverage, but woven into the fabric of this nation is hard to dispute. Today, no matter where you are in India, you’re probably not very far from a chai stall, little roadside shacks that go by different names in different parts of the country. Tea sold at these humble outlets is often the cheapest, the most delicious and the ideal refreshment in every kind of weather.
Source: India in a Tea Cup: The Fascinating History of India’s Best Loved Beverage, Chai
1. History of tea in India
2. History of adding milk to tea