Tea has a long and varied history in India, the nation that currently consumes more tea than any other, almost one-third of the world’s supply. As for export, only China sends more tea around the world than India does. There is no getting around the fact that India is a true example of what “tea culture” is all about.
The country’s long history of Ayurvedic medicine is part of the reason its people have such a strong connection with tea. Even today it is used as the source ingredient in countless herbal remedies and treatments.
Ingredients and variations
Several variations of Indian tea contain cardamon. Cardamon is a spice plant native to India but one that has been used in Europe since the time of the ancient Greeks. It is known to calm the stomach and enhance digestion. That might be the reason so many Indian parents give it to children who suffer from stomach aches and other common ailments. In addition to cardamon, Indian tea-makers employ basil, mint, pepper, ginger, and a wide array of other spices and herbs to impart a unique flavor to every cup of Indian tea.
The brewed tea drink that India is most famous for is called masala chai, which uses black tea leaves as its base. India is a large country and has several famous tea-growing regions, which lend their names to the type of tea they produce. The two most prominent teas of India are Darjeeling and Assam, both named for the geographical locations of the crops.
Assam, in northeast India, produces more tea than any other Indian region. Principally known for its black teas, all of which are brisk, strong and malty, Assam growers also produce a small amount of white and green tea as well.
Darjeeling district in northeastern India, at the base of the Himalaya Mountains, produces the tea that borrows its regions name. More varied than Assam tea, Darjeeling is available in black, green, oolong and white versions.
In general, Indian tea is not steeped but boiled. There are many variations on the theme, but most involve spices, sugar, milk and lots of boiling and re-boiling. There’s even a rare kind of Indian tea that contains no water at all; it consists of tea leaves and spices boiled directly in milk!
Making the perfect cup of masala chai
Traditional, authentic masala chai contains cinnamon, cardamon, peppercorn, clove, ginger and black tea. Of course, this being one of the most popular tea drinks in the world these days, expect to see limitless variations on the basic theme. If you would like to try your hand at brewing a perfect cup of masala chai at home, here is one of the more common recipes. It is typically available in northern India, near the base of the Himalayas, and contains a generous amount of sugar, milk and a few spices. Here’s how to make it:
- To start, you’ll need to assemble a few supplies and ingredients. This tea tastes great and is pretty simple to make. Gather up a few cinnamon sticks, about two inches of ginger (the fresher the better), two small cloves, two capsules of green cardamon, one tablespoon of sugar, one teaspoon of Assam or your favorite black tea, 12 ounces of milk (2 percent works well, but skim will do), a small strainer, a pot, a stirring spoon, a few small drinking glasses and a knife. All this will make two servings.
- Chop the ginger after completely peeling it. Pulverize the cinnamon with your fingers. Separate the cardamon shell and seeds but don’t discard any of it because we’ll use it all to make the tea.
- Everything goes into the pot and is boiled on medium-to-high setting. Here’s a slightly tricky part, but if you master it, the resulting tea will be incredibly delicious:
- After the concoction has boiled for two minutes, take it off the burner for just a few seconds, to let the boiling stop. Then, immediately put it back on the heat and let it boil again. Repeat this process, of bringing it to a boil and removing from the heat source, about three or four times. Much of the milk will have evaporated by this time, but that is the goal. This tactic makes the tea creamy and imparts a unique taste to it.
- Now, you are ready to drink this incredible tea that some people refer to as “Himalayan masala chai.” If you visit northern India, there will be street vendors making this kind of tea, which is visually distinguishable by its frothy, milky appearance and rich texture.
- Of course, the masala chai you find in India will be much better than what is offered in coffee and tea shops in Western nations. But, when you make it at home, you can come very close to the authentic taste by using organic, fresh ingredients. Even goat’s milk is okay to use. Finding fresh, organic ginger, cinnamon and cardamon can be a challenge unless you live near a rural community. But, the authentic Indian black tea (Assam or Darjeeling) can be ordered online or purchased at specialty food stores in just about any large city.
- Practice with different kinds of black tea, though Assam is the best one to start with. It’s harder to ruin the taste of Assam even if you over- or under-boil the mixture. Later, experiment with Darjeeling and other black teas that you like. Masala chai is worth the effort!
The difference between Indian tea and, for example, matcha tea is profound, not just in taste but in appearance. Matcha tea’s frothy, greenish hue is nothing like the milky, coffee-color of masala chai tea. Some people think matcha tea looks like a fruit drink, and that masala chai tea resembles a traditional cup of coffee with an ounce or two of cream added to it.
India’s tea culture has a continuous effect on other nations’ ways of drinking and socializing, mainly because India is the world’s second-largest producer of the plant and millions of Indians live in other Asian countries plus many Western ones. India’s “way of tea” is fast becoming popular in the U.S. and the U.K. as well, where tea bars and even coffee shops offer traditional chai among the diverse menu selections.