A Cup Of Chai by Cherry Narula

Cherry Narula’s work has appeared in the Brampton Writers Guild 2020 Anthology.

Chai, Hindi word for tea, has been crucial for connecting people for centuries and it comes as no surprise that this unifying brew has helped tea drinkers cope during lockdowns. 

In our latest Covid Pandemic, people have continued to connect over tea, even though it is being done over Zoom or Google Meet. Tea traditions to connect with friends and family, were only waiting to be tweaked with the help of these innovative ideas and technology. Two friends in Scotland even made it in the news by sharing tea when they brought their folding chairs and flasks of tea to the border between their two councils. They set themselves up four meters apart beneath their council boundary signs. This news about two dear friends enjoying tea together, yet following strict council rules, brought smiles to many faces. 

Tea Plantation South India. Photo: Ken Puddicombe

A simple cup of tea has a universal appeal to soothe and calm. After water, tea is the second most popular drink worldwide. Anyone who has travelled on trains in India, can never forget the cheerful calls for Chai at railway stations by the Chaiwallas (tea vendors). The bliss of drinking that hot, spiced tea in red clay cups with an earthy hue, lingers for years. At the peak of a hot Indian summer, it is popular to hear, “Have a cup of tea, it will cool you.” In winter months, the same magical brew “will warm you.” This amazing brew is recommended for almost every situation. Versatile to the hilt, it can be sweet, salty, sour, spicy or a blend of various tones. Thus, in a country of more than 1.3 billion, Chai is not simply a drink of tea, it is an integral part of life. 

The United Nations has recognised that tea has medicinal properties and is beneficial for health.  

Many have their memories of tea as a concoction of various spices and herbs used as a remedy for a sore throat. This is an Indian Ayurvedic concoction, traditionally called Kaadha, that is popularly used to soothe a cough or cold. Also known as mom’s or grandma’s special formula, Kaadha is recommended for throat infections, as well building immunity. Kaadha, sweetened with honey or jaggery has soothed many a kid during a cold or fever. Commonly, Kaadha is made from spices such as: ginger, fennel, star anise, turmeric, giloy, mint, liquorice, cloves, black pepper, basil, carom seeds, cardamom, and cinnamon boiled together. Some add salt in addition to a sweetener such as honey or jaggery. This can be consumed either with or without milk or lemon. The recipe is flexible to adapt to different climates, seasons and availability of ingredients. This Kaadha is a versatile herbal immunity concoction that has been embraced by many as a part of their daily lifestyle. 

India is the second largest exporter of tea in the world and consumes over 70% of the tea it produces. Tea stalls can be found in all cities on almost every street. From the hidden nooks of Himalayan villages to the off-beaten path in the salt desert, tea stalls are everywhere. The Chaiwallas and tea stalls play a vital role in the rhythm of daily life that transcends boundaries. Friendly chit chat, gossip or intense political discussions take place over this small cup of chai, even among strangers. Moreover, India is also home to more than 14,000 tea estates. Many of these are of historical significance and are great places to visit for nature lovers. One such plantation, the Kolukkumalai tea estate, is situated at a height of 7,900 ft above sea level. This tea estate has a small tea factory where leaves are still hand-picked and hand-packaged for distribution. 

The innumerable varieties of tea have a flavour to suit each palate: Kangra Tea with hints of earthiness, the fragrant Darjeeling Tea, the mellow Assam Chai, the popular Masala Chai, Mumbai’s Cutting Chai, the roasted aroma of Lopchu Tea, floral tones of Nilgiri Tea and so on. The Himalayan white tea from Darjeeling and the second flush Darjeeling Oolong,

Camellia Sinensis and Camellia Assamica are exclusive varieties. Apart from these, there is the unique preparation of butter tea and the Kashmiri Pink Chai also known as Gulabi Chai, Noon Chai or Shir Chai. Butter tea is ideal for high altitude Himalayan regions. Thick, buttery tea is made by soaking crushed brick tea overnight in water, followed by churning it with salt, goat’s milk, and yak butter. Kashmiri Chai is perfect for cold weather and is topped with crushed nuts, infused with spices, salt and baking soda as key ingredients. Baking soda gives it the rosy hue and salt prevents dehydration at high altitudes. 

The first International Tea Day was celebrated in New Delhi in 2005. Sri Lanka also started observing it in 2006 and more countries followed to celebrate December 15 as International Tea Day. In 2015, India proposed a global recognition of ‘International Tea Day’ to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation. This led to the International Day of Tea being celebrated worldwide on May 21 chosen to coincide with the season of tea production in most tea producing countries. The International Tea Day is significant for public events, seminars and celebration of tea culture. Challenges faced by tea plantations and its workers are discussed, remedies are presented and steps to implement changes are approved. This day is also popular for creative tea recipe posts on social media, accompanied by amusing and nostalgic tea related memories. 

The different types of tea enjoyed in various ways also highlight cultural diversity worldwide. In the east, in China, green tea is vital for health benefits, hospitality traditions and ancestral ceremonies. In Japan, the Tea Ceremony is historic and an important part of Japanese culture. The tea ceremony includes the tradition of how it is prepared as well as the manner in which it is consumed. This ceremony is representative of harmony, tranquility, purity and respect. In Taiwan, the popular Pearl Milk Tea with tapioca balls comes in various innovative varieties. These can be in the form of fruity iced tea or milk tea similar to a milkshake. This bubble tea has become very popular with the younger generation all over the world. 

In Britain, High Tea and Afternoon Tea have been a tradition with popular black tea blends like English Breakfast and Earl Grey. It comes as no surprise that Britain has some of the most delightful tea rooms in the world. Even a city like Paris, well known for its café culture, has a history of remarkable Salons de Thé’. The oldest, Mariage Freres, first opened its tearoom in 1854. Experts are present in the salon to help choose the perfect tea. An ancient tea museum can be visited on the first floor. Another renowned Salon de Thé, Carette, opened in Place du Trocadéro in 1927. 

In North America, protests over high taxes on imported tea in 1773, led to the well-known history of the Boston Tea Party. Three shiploads of tea were dumped into the harbour by protestors. 

Tea has been consumed as both a hot and cold beverage in the United States and Iced tea gained widespread popularity as a thirst-quenching drink a century ago. Since then, innovative iced tea recipes made their way into recipe books and menus and now, tea plantations can be found in the United States primarily in Alabama, California, Georgia, Florida and Hawaii. Canada’s only tea farm is located in British Columbia where Westholme Tea Company in the Cowichan Valley has a tea shop, gallery of imported teas and an 11-acre organic tea farm. 

Thousands of years of the history of tea spans across the world along with a treasure trove of stories. These are accompanied by an inheritance of traditions bringing friends and family together. In any single get-together, it is not uncommon to find everyone relishing a distinct brew. The flavours and aromas of tea continue to evolve tremendously to include infusions of diverse roots, flower petals and herbs. A stress buster for many, the unique charm of each blend brings nature into our lives with each new cup of chai. 

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