Chai Break

Chai is not just a drink, but a whole culture, around which life revolves in both China and India. These are the world’s two largest tea-producing countries, although their teas are of different varieties.
by Poonam Surie
China and India are the world’s two largest tea-producing countries, although their teas are of different varieties.

There’s nothing more potent than a cup of chai to bring cheer on a cold, foggy day. And nothing more relaxing than sitting on a park bench with friends and holding a kullar, or earthen clay cup, to warm the hands as well as the heart.

Chai is not just a drink, but a whole culture, around which life revolves in both China and India. These are the world’s two largest tea-producing countries, although their teas are of different varieties.

Dating back to ancient times, especially the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties, teahouses dotted the streets and lanes of Chinese towns. High-ranking officials and noble lords, as well as commoners and businessmen, gathered at the teahouses. Scholars exchanged ideas and disputes were mediated while drinking tea here. Teahouses were a microcosm of Chinese society, as well as being political and economic centers. People often used tea as a betrothal gift, and in A Dream of Red Mansions, written by Cao Xueqin in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Wang Xifeng says to Lin Daiyu, “Since you have drunk our tea, why not be our sister-in-law?” This is an example of ‘accepting’ tea. There are many fascinating stories of this kind. Many of these teahouses still exist, some providing entertainment to their customers with opera, music and other performances.

Tea is known for its anti-oxidant properties. In winter, tea warms and in summer, it cools. It is the perfect rejuvenating elixir.      

At the Bai Ma Si (White Horse Temple) in Luoyang, Henan Province in China, the head priest performed a tea ceremony for us. Similar tea ceremonies are performed in monasteries and temples all over China. The deep connection between Buddhist monasteries and tea is well known.  In cities, lanes and hutongs, tea is very often carried in bottles and flasks, constantly being refilled.

Beijing is a city which always has something new to offer.  On Workers’ Stadium Road, I stood in front of a parlor which proclaims to sell ‘Milk Tea,’ and I wondered whether Indian chai has found a place in Chinese homes. After further research, I realize that it is probably a parlor selling bubble tea, made with tapioca balls, described by some as black gummy bits, like tiny eyeballs bobbing around in the drink.

Bubble tea began as a beverage based on tea, but today has many fancy, fruity and flowery incarnations including smoothies, milk tea, juice-based tea and so on. Apparently originating from China’s Taiwan in the 1980s, it is a comparatively recent phenomenon, now popular in the West as well.

An important unifying factor binding a diverse India is the roadside chaiwalla, or tea vendor. Colorful Delhi has its fair share of slums and shanty towns, where thousands of hearts beat to the music of the city, the buzz of traffic, the cacophony of cranes building metro stations, the yells of street vendors and every other noise imaginable. Here chai pe charcha, or chatting over tea, is a sport practiced on street corners, in government offices and in college cafeterias. Chai addas have always been a meeting point, with many never-ending discussions on life, politics and society taking place; and where innumerable business deals and matrimonial alliances have been finalized over a cup of tea and a samosa. In crowded marketplaces, tea is carried in aluminum kettles and poured out in small glasses for people to sip on the streets. It keeps us going, both in the scorching summer and in the freezing winter.

Now, tea is becoming popular with the young as well. Chai Point, an app-based service delivering tea to your doorstep, is a chain started by young entrepreneurs. With 40 outlets across Bangalore and Delhi National Capital Region, it has plans to enter other states as well.

Another tea room celebrating chai is Chaayos. Founded in 2012, the company was started up by young professionals who recognized that tea was overtaking coffee in popularity. The focus is on meri wali chai (my kind of tea), catering to individual tastes in a variety of flavors  such as ginger and basil, cinnamon, kullar chai, desi chai  (local tea), green tea, Earl Grey, Orange Pekoe, chamomile, Darjeeling First Flush, Jasmine, pahadi chai (Kashmiri Kahwa), rose cardamom, aam papad chai (sun-dried mango tea) and so on. These are accompanied with snacks such as samosas, butter chicken sandwiches and vada.

Tea-making in China is a special art which can be witnessed in tea-tasting parlors. There are hundreds of varieties of tea. Some have spices, flowers and dried fruits added for medicinal purposes. There is chrysanthemum tea, peony, rose and jasmine tea, and tea with many other flowers. Tourists can taste 12 to 15 brews at a sitting, until they decide which ones they like—but beware, because tea shops catering to tourists can sometimes charge exorbitant amounts from gullible customers, who realize they are being swindled only too late.

Tea drinking has a long history in China. Legend has it that tea was discovered in ancient China by Emperor Shennong. The emperor, considered the father of agriculture and whose name means Divine Farmer, was resting under a camellia tree. He had just boiled some water to drink when a leaf from the tree floated down, fell into the cup and colored the water. The emperor found the added taste of the infusion to be refreshing. From that point on, it was known as tea, was grown widely and eventually gave rise to the habit of drinking tea, which has spread across continents.

In China, tea was used as a ritual offering as well as for medicinal purposes. The preparing of tea took on social meaning when it became a tea ceremony, and it was closely associated with Buddhist monasteries. The story goes that the Buddhist monk, Bodhidharma, who brought Chan Buddhism to China, came from southern India and settled in the Songshan Mountains, where the Shaolin Monastery now stands. It is said that he sat in meditation for nine years facing a wall and, on one occasion, he fell asleep. In disgust, he cut off his eyelids and threw them away, only for them to sprout up as tea bushes. Monks then started drinking tea to stay awake. Lu Yu, who wrote The Book of Tea in the Tang Dynasty, recorded a detailed account of the ways to cultivate and prepare tea, different classifications of tea and tea-drinking customs. Whipped powdered tea, which was derived from compressed cake, came into fashion in the Song Dynasty. But after the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), due to foreign influence, it disappeared completely. People then started drinking tea made from leaves, a practice that has continued until today. In the 17th Century, new methods of tea production were discovered, such as using tea leaves which were sun-dried and half-fermented to produce oolong tea.

The earliest recorded history of tea-drinking in India dates back to 750 BC. But it was the British who, given to buying large quantities of Chinese tea to meet the demands of Britain’s tea drinkers, paved the way for tea cultivation on a large scale in India. In 1774, Warren Hastings (the first de facto Governor-General of India from 1773 to 1785) sent tea seedlings from China to northeastern India and the noted botanist, Sir John Banks, suggested that tea be grown in India. However, in 1823, it was discovered that some indigenous tea, a variation of the Chinese plant, was already growing in Assam. Since the Chinese seedlings did not survive in the Assamese climate, it was decided that the Indian leaf should be grown instead.

In 1835, when Darjeeling was transferred to the East India Company, it was found that the Chinese seeds were suitable for growing in that area. Commercial plantation started in the 1850s. The success of Assam and Darjeeling was soon followed by tea cultivation across the foothills of the Himalayas and in other parts of India. Tea production continued to flourish after 1947, and it is now grown in many regions of India.

Across the two countries, people go about their lives, each with their own problems, joys, trials and tribulations—finding themselves relaxed and invigorated at every step by this wonderful brew.

The author, who has lived in China, is a research fellow of the Institute of Chinese Studies in New Delhi. Her book of poetry, Dancing on a Moonbeam, was followed by China: A Search for its Soul and China: Confucius in the Shadows.