Chai, the quintessential Indian drink, can easily vie for the honour of being our country's most popular drink. The BBC News Magazine once termed it a drink that India "can't live without", and it has even reached foreign shores. The Irani cafe-inspired Dishoom in London has Mumbai tea on its menu, and even coffee chain Starbucks offers a drink (not in India) called the Classic Chai Tea Latte. In India, chai can be found on almost every street corner. That we love tea is not something that needs to be underlined. Then why do we ignore the finer offerings of tea plantations in Darjeeling? Vikram Doctor investigates in this episode of The Real Food Podcast.
Writer, photographer and traveller Jeff Koehler recently wrote a book, Darjeeling: The Colorful History and Precarious Fate of the World's Greatest Tea, which explores the world of Darjeeling's tea plantations. In the episode, he tells Vikram about the first time he had a sip of fine Darjeeling , and the contrast it was to the sweet, milky chai that most of us consider tea to be limited to.
Strangely enough for a drink that is so popular in India, we don't really understand it. First of all, as Vikram points out, tea is not as Indian as you would have thought. It was the British who introduced us to the beverage. Chai was born after the British realised how difficult it was to get Indians to drink good tea. Vikram puts it perfectly, "[To make tea appetising to the Indian palate] We added a little tea to a lot of milk and a lot of sugar." So much sugar that, according to this Aakar Patel piece in Mint Lounge, the freedom fighter Maulana Azad called it "liquid halwa".
It's been a century since the British realised the tea-growing potential of a hilly town, which we today know as Darjeeling, and started several plantations. But, it's still difficult to get Indians to appreciate good tea. As Amit Mehta of Chado Tea explains, we seem to be drinking everything but tea! The best way to understand the complexities of Darjeeling tea is this simple statement by Rishi Saria of the Gopaldhara Tea Estate in Darjeeling. If you compare tea to liquor, he says, then Darjeeling is a Scotch.
We can rest assured that Darjeeling tea is not going anywhere. As Jeff says, "There will always be a market for Darjeeling." It is, Vikram says, the most amazing product in India. And, it's time that Indians wake up and smell the tea!
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