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Indian Tea Culture

The Heart of India in a Cup: Understanding Indian Tea Culture

Jul 09, 2024

Shanika Dasanayaka

The Heart of India in a Cup: Understanding Indian Tea Culture

Hey there, how about a cup of masala chai? The creamy sensation is uplifted with authentic Indian spices. While masala chai might be the first thing that comes to mind when we think of Indian tea, there is much more to explore in Indian tea culture. Today's exploration is all about Indian tea and its rich culture. Stay tuned for a truly exotic journey.

India is the world's second-largest tea producer, known for its world-famous Assam and Darjeeling teas. It is also the world’s largest consumer of tea, accounting for about 30% of the global tea output. Let’s delve into the fascinating tea culture of India in this article.

Origins

The consumption of tea in India dates back to 750 BC when tea was primarily used as a cooking ingredient. Typically, Indians prepared tea leaves with garlic and oil. However, the history of Indian tea truly begins with Chai tea.

The origin of Chai tea in India has a unique story. According to legend, an ancient Indian king struggled to stay alert for long periods and sought a solution. He tried a drink made by boiling tea leaves with water and some spices. It proved effective, helping him remain alert and be an effective ruler. That's how Chai tea was born.

Sweet, milky Chai, made by adding high-quality milk to Chai tea, has become one of the favorite drinks among Indian people. Consequently, Indian tea culture has a strong relationship with Chai tea.

Tea  Production in India

Today, India is the second-largest tea producer in the world, following China. The commercial production of tea in India began with the arrival of the British East India Company. Around one million Indians work in the tea industry.

The primary tea-growing regions in India include Darjeeling and Assam in the northeast and Nilgiri in the south.

Indian Tea Culture

Indian tea culture reveals that almost 70% of the total tea produced in India is consumed by its own people. The tea varieties produced in India vary significantly due to differences in climate and geography. As mentioned, the three main tea-growing regions in India are Assam, Darjeeling, and Nilgiri. Assam and Darjeeling are situated in northeastern India, while Nilgiri is located in the southernmost part of the country. Each tea-producing region offers unique yet ideal climatic conditions for tea cultivation. 

 The Legacy of Assam 

Among the three tea-growing regions, Assam is the largest in India and the world. It produces between 50% to 75% of India’s total tea output. The tea plant used to grow Assam tea is Camellia sinensis assamica. The Assam region, with its mountainous backdrop, traps hot, humid air in the valley and retains river water to produce flood plains that nourish the tea gardens.

Assam’s tropical weather directly contributes to the production of thick, lush tea plants with large, abundant leaves. The hot and humid conditions, along with abundant rainfall, result in a characteristically strong, full-bodied, and malty tea. The plucking and production season for Assam tea spans from March to November, with two harvests per season: the first flush and the second flush. The first flush, harvested in early spring (March), produces a more delicate tea, while the second flush, harvested in mid-summer, yields a tippy tea.

Assam primarily produces black tea, which offers a distinctly nice taste with or without milk and sugar. Assam tea holds a significant place in Indian tea culture and is renowned worldwide as a breakfast tea.

The Flavors of Darjeeling

Following the success with Assam tea, the British sought to find highly prized tea plants to compete with China. They eventually succeeded in smuggling seeds and growing a Chinese tea variety, Camellia sinensis sinensis, in the high-altitude, cool, rainy, and rugged mountains of Darjeeling. Darjeeling tea is often referred to as the “Champagne” of teas. Some Darjeeling tea gardens cultivated the native Indian tea bush variety (assamica), while others grew the China variety. Many Darjeeling tea bushes are likely China-India hybrids.

Darjeeling tea leaves are small and delicate compared to Assam tea. Due to the severe winter weather in the Darjeeling region, tea bushes remain dormant for many months of the year. Depending on the location of the tea garden, the harvest season can run from February to November, with several seasonal flushes:

  1. First Flush (February and March): The earliest spring growth of the tea plant, consisting of two leaves and a bud. The tea brew is light, floral, fresh, and astringent in flavor.
  2. Second Flush (May): Larger, more mature leaves with silver tips or leaf buds. The tea brew has a muscatel, full-bodied, and fruity flavor.
  3. Monsoon Flush (June to October): Large leaves. The tea brew is strong and bold in flavor.
  4. Autumnal Flush (October and November): The tea brew is copper in color with a full and smooth flavor.

    The Fragrances of Nilgiri

    The same Chinese tea bush seeds were planted in the Nilgiri mountains, another fertile tea-growing region in India. The size of this region and the number of estates are comparable to those in Darjeeling. Nilgiri tea accounts for about 25% of India's total tea production, with 50% of it exported to the United Kingdom and Europe.

    The growing and plucking schedules for Nilgiri tea are defined by its monsoon seasons. The tropical climate of the region allows for year-round plucking and production. However, the best Nilgiri teas are harvested between November and March. Compared to Darjeeling tea, Nilgiri tea bushes are a high-yielding variety.

    Nilgiri tea is fragrant, bright, and full-bodied. It combines the fruity characteristics of Darjeeling with the strong, bold traits of Assam. Due to its robust and consistent flavor, Nilgiri tea is often used as a base for masala chai. Additionally, Nilgiri tea contains very little tannin, allowing it to brew for a long time without becoming overly astringent.

    The Spiciness of Chai

    Chai tea, a blend of tea mixed with spices, holds a significant place in Indian tea culture. There are many chai recipes around the world. To make a chai tea blend, ingredients such as black tea, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, ginger, and black pepper are commonly used. The origin of chai dates back more than 5000 years, with the original “masala chai” not containing Camellia sinensis. The addition of tea, sugar, and milk occurred thousands of years later.

    Within India, there are numerous customs for preparing chai tea, varying by region, town, and individual preferences. Chai tea makers who operate shops near the streets are known as “Chai - wallahs.” Despite the diversity in preparation methods, the basic process involves boiling tea leaves with spices and then boiling again after adding milk and sugar. Among Western consumers, the chai latte is more popular than traditional chai tea.

     Most Popular Varieties of Tea Culture in India

    Chai tea can be considered the national drink of India. Indian tea culture shows that a high percentage of tea produced in the country is consumed domestically. There are many popular tea varieties in Indian tea culture.

    Masala Chai

    As previously explained, Masala Chai is a tea blended with strong spices like cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and pepper. Specially grown Mamri tea plants from the Assam region are used to make this flavorful masala chai. 

    Noon Chai

    Noon Chai, also known as Kashmiri tea, Gulabi chai, or Sheer Chai, is a traditional pink tea from the Kashmir region. The name "Noon" translates to "salt" in Kashmiri, indicating one of its key ingredients. This tea is renowned for its unique pink hue and distinctive flavor, which sets it apart from other teas. Green tea gunpowder is typically used, along with spices similar to those in masala chai. This refreshing drink offers floral, citrusy, and spicy flavors, perfect for spring and summer.

    Butter Tea

    Butter tea, or Tibetan butter tea, is ideal for the winter season. This unique recipe includes baking soda, milk, and a large cube of yak butter. It is a traditional drink for the Himalayan people of India, Nepal, and Bhutan.

    Green Tea

    Green tea has been used for many years as a traditional medicinal beverage in India. Studies show that drinking green tea may help reduce the risk of cancer, act as an antioxidant, combat microorganisms, improve heart health, and reduce inflammation.

    Black Tea

    The most popular Indian black teas are Assam, Darjeeling, and Nilgiri. These robust, full-bodied teas have high caffeine content and offer health benefits such as improving heart health, lowering blood pressure, and aiding digestion. A cup of black tea can also soothe symptoms of a sore throat and common cold.

    White Tea

    White tea is minimally processed and is one of the most delicate tea varieties in the world. Made from unopened tea buds covered in fine white hairs, white tea has a subtle, sweet, and fruity flavor loved worldwide.

    Herbal Tea

    Herbal tea is made by infusing different dried plant materials, such as flower petals, whole flowers, leaves, roots, bark, and fruits, in hot water. Popular herbal teas include ginger tea, cardamom tea, clove tea, hibiscus tea, cinnamon tea, black pepper tea, lemon tea, lemongrass tea, and lavender tea.

    Iced Tea

    Iced tea is a form of cold tea served with ice cubes. It is very common in India, with popular varieties including ginger lemon iced tea and lemon iced tea. Iced tea can be sweetened with sugar or sweet syrups and is available in bottled beverages, ready-to-stir mixes, and tea bags.

    Irani Chai

    Irani Chai is a unique type of tea in Indian tea culture. To make Irani Chai, mawa or khoya is added to black tea, resulting in a sweet, creamy chai. Optional spices like cinnamon and green cardamom can be added. Also known as Hyderabadi Tea or Hyderabadi Dum Chai, it was introduced to Indian tea culture by Persian immigrants in the 19th century and has since evolved to match the Indian taste profile.

    Amrut Tulya

    The name “Amrut Tulya” means “comparable to nectar.” True to its name, Amrut Tulya is very sweet. It is traditionally cooked in a brass vessel, with the vessel's age directly affecting the tea's taste. To make Amrut Tulya, milk and water are boiled together with plenty of sugar, a masala mixture, and tea leaves.

    Tandoori Chai

    Tandoori Chai is a unique type of tea preparation in Indian tea culture. It uses 16 spices, giving it a nice earthy and smoky flavor. Although similar to regular chai, the serving process makes it special. The tea is prepared using small earthen pots called “kullads,” which are heated to produce smoke, making the tea bubble up.

    Summary

    Indian tea culture is rich and diverse, reflecting the country's long history with tea. From its ancient origins as a cooking ingredient to the establishment of commercial tea production by the British East India Company, tea has played a significant role in India's culture and economy. The main tea-growing regions—Assam, Darjeeling, and Nilgiri—each produce distinct varieties of tea, influenced by their unique climates and geographies.
    1. Assam Tea: Known for its strong, full-bodied, and malty flavor, Assam tea is primarily harvested in two flushes and is often enjoyed with or without milk and sugar.
    2. Darjeeling Tea: Often referred to as the "Champagne" of teas, Darjeeling tea is prized for its light, floral, and muscatel flavors, produced through several seasonal flushes.
    3. Nilgiri Tea: Combining the fruity characteristics of Darjeeling with the boldness of Assam, Nilgiri tea is fragrant and full-bodied, often used as a base for masala chai.

      Various traditional and modern tea varieties are popular in India, including masala chai, noon chai, butter tea, green tea, black tea, white tea, herbal tea, iced tea, lemongrass tea, Irani chai, Amrut Tulya, and tandoori chai. Each type offers unique flavors and health benefits, contributing to the rich tapestry of Indian tea culture.

      By exploring and appreciating the diverse world of Indian tea, one can gain a deeper understanding of the country's rich cultural heritage and enjoy a variety of unique and flavorful tea experiences.

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