In India, tea isn’t only a hot drink made with water and leaves; it is an integral part of the rhythm of life, a consistent and unifying presence in an incredibly diverse country. Whether served in a plastic cup, earthenware clay pot, or a silver-plated kettle, every cup of Indian tea is a result of a unique style of brewing and spicing the beverage.
Tea is called chai in Hindi, and draws its origin from the word ‘cha,’ meaning tea in Chinese. The story of tea in India is a long one. Folklore speaks of Prince Bodhidharma, who traveled from India to China in 475 AD to spread Buddhism. The prince committed not to sleep during his mission but was soon overcome by exhaustion. Furious at his weakness, he plucked a few leaves of a tea shrub and ate them. His mind suddenly cleared and focused; he resumed his meditation.
Tea began its modern saga in the early 18th century when the British Raj started to set up tea plantations in India, primarily for its export. An aggressive campaign by the India Tea Company promoted the provision of ‘tea breaks’ for workers in an attempt to increase domestic tea sales.
With the increase in overall tea sales came an increase in the addition of spices to the mix by chai-walas (tea vendors), who diluted the tea to keep costs down. Despite the disapproval of the Indian Tea Company, masala chai quickly became the preferred beverage.