The Indian Chai Story

Before International Tea Day on March 21st, we revisit the history and culture of tea in India
Sunrise over tea plantations in Munnar, Kerala
Sunrise over tea plantations in Munnar, KeralaShutterstock

In a meme-worthy sequence of Bridgerton Season 2, Kate Sharma (Simone Ashley) puckers up her nose and declares how she "despises English tea" and later proceeds to crush some cardamoms to prepare her own cup of masala tea. This led to a newly flourished round of appreciation for Indian tea across the internet. But what is Indian tea, if at all several varieties can be categorised under one umbrella?

Spilling the Tea

Estate workers go about their day in a tea garden
Estate workers go about their day in a tea gardenShutterstock

Tea has a long history in China, where it was consumed for centuries before reaching the shores of India. The British, who were avid tea drinkers, sought to establish a trade route that bypassed the monopoly held by the Chinese. They recognised the potential of tea as a lucrative commodity and began exploring opportunities to cultivate it in other parts of the world.

In the early 19th century, the British East India Company set its sights on India as a promising location for tea production. They initiated tea cultivation in India by experimenting with different tea plant varieties and establishing tea gardens in various regions. One crucial figure in this endeavour was Robert Bruce, dubbed as the man behind the Assam tea, who discovered wild tea plants in the Assam region of northeastern India in the early 1820s. This finding laid the foundation for commercial tea cultivation in India.

A tea garden in Sikkim
A tea garden in SikkimShutterstock

Assam, with its favourable climate and soil conditions, proved to be an ideal region for tea production. The British started cultivating tea on a larger scale in Assam, and by the 1850s, Assam tea had gained recognition for its unique flavour and robust characteristics. This variety became a cornerstone of Indian tea production and is still highly regarded today.

Encouraged by the success of Assam, the British expanded tea cultivation to other parts of India. The regions of Darjeeling, Nilgiri, and Kangra soon emerged as prominent tea-growing areas, each producing teas with distinctive flavours and qualities. Darjeeling, nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas, gained renown for its delicate and aromatic teas, while Nilgiri in southern India produced teas with a smooth and mellow character. Kangra, situated in the scenic state of Himachal Pradesh, also contributed to India's tea diversity with its flavourful and fragrant offerings. Read more about the Indian Chai Trail here. 

Tea gardens make for quaint holiday spots
Tea gardens make for quaint holiday spotsShutterstock

Here is a listing of some of the best regional varieties. 

Assam Tea: Assam tea is one of the most renowned varieties of Indian tea. Grown in the lush valleys of the northeastern state of Assam, it is known for its strong, full-bodied flavour, malty notes, and bright reddish-brown liquor. Assam tea is often used as a base for breakfast blends and is favoured by those who enjoy a robust and bold cup of tea.

Darjeeling Tea: Hailing from the picturesque Darjeeling region in the foothills of the Himalayas, Darjeeling tea is highly regarded for its exquisite flavor and aroma.Contrary to the majority of Indian teas, Darjeeling tea distinguishes itself by being crafted from the small-leaved Chinese variety of Camellia sinensis, instead of the larger-leaved Assam plant. This unique characteristic sets Darjeeling tea apart in terms of flavour and profile. Also, the enactment of the Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration & Protection Act, 1999) in 2003 played a significant role in acknowledging the distinctiveness of Darjeeling tea. As a result, Darjeeling tea achieved the distinction of being the first Indian product to be awarded a Geographical Indication (GI) tag in 2004-05, recognising its origin and protecting its identity.

Darjeeling tea commands a global repute
Darjeeling tea commands a global reputeNarayan G. Maharjan/Flickr

Often referred to as the "Champagne of Teas," Darjeeling tea is characterised by its light golden colour, floral fragrance, and delicate muscatel taste. It is often enjoyed without milk and is cherished for its nuanced and refined profile.

Nilgiri Tea: Grown in the misty slopes of the Nilgiri Hills in southern India, Nilgiri tea offers a unique and smooth cup. It is known for its bright, brisk liquor, balanced flavour, and gentle floral notes. Nilgiri tea is versatile and can be enjoyed plain or with a touch of milk. It is often used in blends and is prized for its refreshing character.

Kangra Tea: Hailing from the scenic Kangra Valley in the state of Himachal Pradesh, Kangra tea is a lesser-known but highly regarded variety. It is appreciated for its delicate, floral aroma, gentle astringency, and subtle fruity undertones. Kangra tea leaves are carefully processed to preserve their delicate flavours, resulting in a tea that offers a refined and soothing drinking experience.

Preparation A Vast Variety

Despite the metamorphosis of chai into chai-tea, there is more to tea in India than masala chai. The diverse tea varieties produced in India cater to different tastes and preferences, offering a wide range of flavours, aromas, and strengths. Depending on preparation methods, here are a few more variations.

Kashmiri kahwa is a traditional aromatic green tea
Kashmiri kahwa is a traditional aromatic green teaShutterstock

Kashmiri Kahwa: Originating from the picturesque Kashmir Valley, Kashmiri Kahwa is a traditional aromatic green tea infused with saffron strands, cardamom pods, cinnamon, and sometimes almonds. It has a delicate flavour profile, with a pleasant blend of spices and a slight sweetness. Kahwa is often served with crushed nuts and is cherished for its soothing and warming properties.

Munnar Tea: Munnar, located in the Western Ghats of Kerala, is famous for its tea plantations. Munnar tea is known for its bright, golden liquor, aromatic flavour, and crisp character. The tea gardens in Munnar produce a range of black, green, and white teas, each offering a distinct taste and aroma influenced by the region's unique climate and elevation.

Sikkim Temi Tea: Grown in the hills of Sikkim, Temi Tea is a speciality tea known for its exceptional quality. It is produced in limited quantities, making it highly sought after. Temi Tea features a smooth, mellow taste with a hint of fruitiness, floral notes and bright amber liquor.

Bihar Tea: Bihar, a state in eastern India, is known for its tea cultivation, primarily in the regions of Kishanganj and Purnea. Bihar tea is admired for its well-rounded flavour, medium body, and pleasant aroma. The tea gardens in Bihar produce both black and green teas, providing a diverse range of options.

Kangra Green Tea: Apart from Kangra tea, which I mentioned earlier, the Kangra region of Himachal Pradesh is also renowned for its green tea production. Kangra green tea is known for its delicate and refreshing flavours, with a milder profile compared to its black tea counterpart. It offers vegetal notes, a light sweetness, and a pale liquor.

Manipur White Tea: Manipur, a northeastern state of India, is gaining recognition for its production of white teas. Manipur white tea is made from young tea buds and leaves, carefully handpicked and minimally processed. It offers a delicate, nuanced flavour with floral undertones and a slightly sweet aftertaste.

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