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Tracing the rich history of the ubiquitous chai

On International Tea Day, we take a look at the history of tea and speak to tea experts about the increasing popularity of tea houses in the city

more lifestyle Updated: Dec 14, 2017 17:30 IST
Tea,High Tea,Tea Plantations
The strawberry and aloe tea collection by TGL Co


Tracing the origin of tea in India is difficult, as there are several legends and contradictory accounts about how tea consumption was popularised in the country. There are records of tea being consumed circa 16th century as a vegetable dish that combined tea leaves with garlic and oil. Looking back a couple centuries further, you find that the practice of Ayurveda resulted in a longstanding tradition of herbal teas. Traditional Indian kitchens infused tea with herbs for its medicinal properties — a practice followed even today.

However, the credit for rediscovering and cultivating tea commercially goes to the British, who with the British East India Company began large-scale production of tea in Assam in the 1820s. Dani says, “The quintessential ‘chai’ culture was developed in India by the British, back in the days when they bartered tea for opium.” Sandeep Mathur, a tea expert at Brooke Bond Taj Mahal Tea House, says Indian tea culture, like its cuisine, has been influenced by the tastes and preferences of invading forces. “Although tea had been growing in Assam for many centuries, it was consumed only by the local tribes. It was the English who propagated tea production and consumption,” he adds.

However, it was only in 1837, after the East India Company took over the region under the Treaty of Yandabo, that the first English tea gardens were established. This led to the formation of the Assam Tea Company, which was run by locals under a legal agreement. The tea industry soon expanded at a rapid pace, consuming vast tracts of land for tea plantations, and eventually leading to Assam being the leading tea producing region in the world.

Brewed tea at Tasse de Thé, Fort


Given that India is the largest consumer of tea in the world and the second largest producer as well, it is quite safe to say that we as people love tea. It’s therefore no surprise that the first International Tea Day was celebrated in Delhi in 2005. The day is celebrated annually on December 15 in tea producing countries such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Vietnam, Indonesia, Kenya, Malawi, Malaysia, Uganda, and Tanzania, to raise awareness about issues faced by tea estate employees. “It is important to understand the hardships faced by plantation owners and address their issues at a global level. This day is a tribute to plantation owners across India for sustaining tea culture in the country,” says Bhuman Dani, co-founder and tea expert, The Good Life (TGL) Co.

Kavita Mathur, a tea expert at Tea Trails, says, “International Tea Day wasn’t created to just enjoy an extra cup of tea. It focuses on the problems in tea production and the impact of global tea trade on workers, small growers and consumers.”

Pink Guava and Kaffir Tea


Chai is more or less ubiquitous in most parts of India, but many people have moved from traditional chai to green tea in pursuit of healthy alternatives. Dani lays out the statistics, “The green tea market in India was almost non-existent in 2007-2008. Today, after almost a decade, it’s a ₹3,500 crore market that’s growing at a whopping 25% per year. The average Indian, who would consume five cups of tea a day, now consumes two or three cups and replaces the other two with green tea and other healthier herbal tea options.”

Urban cities have seen a rise in the number of tea houses, which feature a wide assortment of teas and other beverages. This segment, according to Dani, has huge potential, given the demographic profile of customers and the shift towards fitness and wellness as a lifestyle. Tea houses have begun giving stiff competition to coffee chains over the past decade, and Mathur feels that as more people adopt healthier lifestyles and become aware of health benefits of teas, the market is ready for tea houses. With the growing number of tea houses, the demand for tea experts has also risen.“The art of tea tasting is used to assess the quality of every tea. You have to practice till you’re perfect and then perfect your practice. Tasting teas and assigning quality attributes is the key skill, along with a good memory,” adds Mathur.

Tea Infusions

Tea, these days, are also used to make various dessert preparations. Matcha tea has become a rage, with nearly everyone in the hospitality industry experimenting with it. There are various tea infused cakes such as Mogo Mogo Mousse Cake and Orange and Mango Oolong Tea Cake from Deliciae Patisserie or Sakura From La Folie Lab among others.

Tea infused dessert Sakura at La Folie Lab

Tea Etiquette

An ideal tea setting consists of a teapot, cups and saucers, a creamer for milk along with a bowl of sugar and a tea strainer

The flavour and aroma of tea can be kept intact by using a ceramic pot

Tea is best accompanied with sweet and savoury food.

- Razi Khan, tea blender, Typhoo Teas

We have tracked down a few tea houses and outlets in the city where you can satiate your thirst for tea.

What: TGL Tea Salon
Where: Sofitel, Bandra (E)
When: 9am to 9pm

What: Tea Villa
Where: Across their outlets in Churchgate, Andheri (W), Bandra (W), Juhu, Kandivali, Vashi and Thane
When: 8am to 12.30am

What: Tea Trails Cafe
Where: Vile Parle (E)
When: 9.30am to 11.30pm

What: House of Tea by Foodhall
Where: High Street Phoenix, Lower Parel
When: 10.30am to 10.30pm

What: Tasse de Thé
Where: Fort
When: 8am to 12am

What: Yauatcha
Where: Bandra (E)
When: 12pm to 1am

What: Brooke Bond Taj Mahal Tea House
Where: Bandra (W)
When: 7.30am to 11.30pm

What: The Rolling Pin
Where: Lower Parel
When: 11am to 12am

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First Published: Dec 14, 2017 17:29 IST