Chai? Tea? How do Indians take their tea?

A tea garden is in the foreground under an overcast sky with streaks of blue. Some green hills stand in the background

A tea garden in the Nilgiri hills in the south of India. Image by Ameya Nagarajan, used with permission.

My home state of Tamil Nadu, at the southern end of India, is famous for its coffee. “Filter kaapi,” as we call it, is the definitive drink, hot, milky, bitter with chicory, and served in an iconic combination of steel tumbler and bowl that both act as a vacuum seal and a way to cool the drink. My father has his specific blend of coffee that he orders, and very strict rituals about how to make and consume coffee (never ever EVER reheat it in the microwave). And yet, in that same house, we had another set of rituals, across three generations, around the beverage often cast as the opposite of coffee, and globally recognized as quintessentially Indian: tea.

India is one of the largest producers of tea in the world, and we consume most of what we produce. Assam and Darjeeling tea are instantly recognized and much in demand the world over. While it was the East India Company that began the tea plantation culture in India, a variant of tea is native to the country and was consumed by people who lived in the northeast, at the time under the rule of the Ahom kings. When the colonial British rulers took over the region, they decided to grow the tea they smuggled in from China there, because they needed to break their dependence on China for this wildly popular commodity. Today, Assam tea is one of the black teas in the English and Irish breakfast tea blends.

There are three main regions where we grow tea in India: in the northeast, most famously in Darjeeling and Assam; in the north in Kangra, and in the southern Nilgiri hills. In India, we usually make boiled tea with milk and sugar — the ubiquitous beverage called chai that you get all over the country, that made its way onto the Starbucks menu with the hilarious name “chai tea,” or “tea tea.” But even within our boiled milk tea, we have variations. In the south of India, the tea is thick, and very strong, boiled down with cardamom and cinnamon and served in tiny servings that are almost like tea shots. In the north, they also use spices, but often just boil the tea with fresh ginger. There’s less milk, and the tea is less strong. In the Deccan region, especially the cities of Hyderabad and Mumbai, you have Irani chai, which is served in the several Iranian cafes scattered about the cities. These cafes were begun by Zoroastrian emigrants from Iran who arrived in Mumbai and moved further inland to end up in Hyderabad. Even though Iranians drink black tea, the thick sweet milky tea takes its name from the cafes it is served in, part of a larger culture of snacks, from salted biscuits to sweet buns with butter and mutton samosas.

Journalist Yunus Lasania talks about Irani chai in Hyderabad in this post on Instagram.


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A post shared by Yunus Lasania (@thathyderabadiboy)

In the northeast of India, however, chai is often drunk black, or red as it is called in Assamese “lal-sa,” meaning red tea. This tea is made with long-leaf Assam tea, steeped in boiled water, often served with sugar and a bay leaf, and sometimes lime juice. A nod to the British style of tea drinking does exist in India: dip tea. That’s what we call it when you use a tea bag. Most often seen in catering services on board trains, people generally look down on this option, where a sweetened hot milk and water mixture is poured over the teabag in a paper cup. Plenty of upper-class Indians have been influenced by British tea drinking enough to only use tea bags, and develop a taste for blends like Earl Grey.

I myself am firmly in the “proper chai” camp, where I make my favorite tea — Society Tea, rolled leaves from Assam — by pouring water, milk, sugar and tea leaves into a pan and bringing it to a boil. This practice was viewed with horror by my mother, who likes her favorite tea — Nonesuch from the Nilgiris — brewed by adding leaves to the water once it has boiled, and then turning off the fire to let the tea steep, before adding a splash of water and very little sugar. But the finickiest of all three generations was my grandmother, who had devised over the years an elaborate method of making her tea — Ceylon was her favorite, but she would settle for Nilgiri or Darjeeling — that she insisted we always use, and somehow she could magically tell when we had skipped a step.

Here is how she demanded we make her tea. First, take a pot and measure out a mug full of water. Put it on the fire to boil. Meanwhile, take a couple of teaspoons of milk, and put them in a tiny steel tumbler and put that tumbler inside the pot where the water is heating. This, she explained, ensured the milk and the water would be at similar temperatures and the flavor of the tea would be enhanced. Once the water is boiling, put one teaspoon of tea leaves in a metal strainer over another tumbler, and pour the hot water over them. Then, put the strainer with the leaves over the mug and pour the tumbler water over the leaves once more. Now, add a few drops of the hot milk, and a very small amount of sugar. Stir, and serve.

It’s a testament to tea and the myriad kinds we have and ways we make it in India, that three such very different women in the same house could all claim that ours was the best and most authentic way while fighting over who was going to make the tea and in whose way. We even managed to export it to my niece who, all the way in the US, insists that she has to make her own tea with a tea bag, and do it only her way.

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