Tea or chai is probably the most popular drink in India. This country is the largest consumer of tea in the world and we consume 25 per cent of the tea produced worldwide (as reported by The Associated Chambers of Commerce of India in a December 2011 report). India is also the second largest producer of tea in the world.
We may be a very avid tea drinking nation, but historically speaking the consumption of tea is a rather nouveau trend introduced by the British in the late 1800s as a way of breaking China’s monopoly in growing this plant. The British East India Company got hold of the seeds and learnt the techniques of tea cultivation from China and started farming it in India. Initially the rich and the anglicised Indians took to the style of ‘tea-time’ but by the 1920s, tea became popular among the masses and by 2013, drinkers of tea were increasing by 50 per cent annually.
Tea grown in Darjeeling and Assam is the most popular variety in our country. Ceylon tea from Sri Lanka is another popular variant for the rest of the world. The Tea Board - a government organisation originally set up by the British East India Company to popularise tea in the rural parts of India - regulates the production and export of tea in the country.
Some may argue that tea is an ancient-drink in India and the British had nothing to do with it - and they may not be completely wrong. The tea plant did grow in India but before the mass production under the British rule, it was being used just for medicinal purposes and not as a regular beverage of choice for the general public. But there is no factual record of when or how tea started growing in ancient India and how its medicinal value were discovered.
At present, tea is consumed in 90 per cent of the houses in India. The preferred method of preparation is usually tea leaves boiled with water, milk, sugar and often with a few additives like cardamom and ginger.
‘Masala Chai’ is another alternative in preparation techniques and is tea infused with the fragrance and properties of spices like cinnamon, cloves, big cardamom and pepper. This is still used as a treatment for fever, cold and sore throat hence the medicinal properties of tea are still known and used.
Tea is an addictive substance and this we see from how regular tea drinkers suffer withdrawal symptoms like headaches and irritation if they don’t get their usual cup of tea at the usual time. What makes this drink addictive is caffeine and other caffeine like substances in it.
British Company Brooke Bond exploited this very nature of tea to popularise it by handing out free samples to the masses off the back of a horse carriage in 1907.
Decaffeinated tea has gained popularity recently, but most of the herbal and fruit teas do not contain any part of the tea plant.
Green tea, which is a lot like the original Chinese tea, has its number of consumers rising at the rate of 10 per cent annually.
Green tea, often called ‘Kahwah’ has anti-oxidants that help prevent cancer, lower cholesterol levels and aid in digestion and weight loss. Green tea is often had after every meal in north west India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. People prefer to have green tea without milk or sugar and thus this is a healthier alternative to the regular chai.
Tea has slowly steeped into the culture of India and chaiwallahs have become an important part of it. From the little tea stalls in every corner of the street and the tea-carrying boys running with the hot kettle and little cups on the train station, to the air conditioned tea cafes, tea seems to be flowing in the veins of Indians.
We serve it to our guests and to our children when they are sick, and it brings people together in those little tea stalls where even strangers become friends over a cup of tea and a glucose biscuit.