Memories of Chai Time

Why tea is more than just a beverage

cup of chai

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Morning tea was a ritual in our home. It was nothing less than an art form, with the rubric laid down by my late grandmother. Her palate had been honed during her childhood years growing up in the border state of Punjab, the land of five rivers, the veritable bread basket of India. After her marriage, she eventually moved to Mumbai, located on the western coast of the country. She lived here for nearly 70 years, bringing with her the edible memories of home, scribbled in faded sepia-tinted diaries and etched in the recesses of her razor-sharp mind. 

Each morning started with a cup of tea brewed in a kettle. Her favorite was a mix of fine black Assam loose leaf tea, to which a smattering of potent CTC tea was added for color and zing. (An inexpensive tea, CTC is an acronym for "crush, tear, and curl." Tea leaves are processed into particles that have a strong flavor and a dark color) This concoction would be incomplete without spices. A dash of cardamom, crushed in a wee mortar and pestle, was added. On occasion, when her throat was feeling raspy, a sliver of ginger was diced and submerged. 

Accompanying the tea was milk, heated to a boil. Both were served in stainless steel pots, snug in quilted covers, keeping them scalding hot. The final touch was her mug, prewashed in scorching water, so she could enjoy a steaming cup of tea. 

Adding a spoonful of granular sugar and a spot of milk to the beverage, the ritual would be incomplete without her biscuits. Occasionally it would be sweet glucose biscuits dunked till soggy, but with age, she gradually moved on to digestive biscuits packed with fiber. Depending on the weather, her evening tea would transform. On hotter days, she would drink iced tea, and during cool breezy monsoon days, she'd mix up the spices. 

Reading the Tea Leaves

The history of tea began in China, from the leaves of the shrub Camellia sinensis. In India, the history of commercial plantations is linked to its colonial past. Now tea plantations cover vast swaths of hilly areas, such as Darjeeling, Assam, the Nilgiris and Kangra regions, among others, where some of the most sublime teas come from. The varied and flavorful tea universe, dominated by black, green, white, and oolong teas, delivers manifold health benefits for committed drinkers. Tea extracts have even found a place in the beauty industry, as more people move away from harmful substances and toxic preservatives for their skin and hair care.

But it is in our cups that tea still rules the roost. Our modern lifestyles, lived at breakneck speed, have ushered in convenient tea bags (which my mother refers to as "dip-dip"); however, tea bags have received a bad rap in recent times as many are made from plastic materials. (Tea bags are also often sealed using a plastic glue.) When brewed, these plastic tea bags shed billions of particles in the water (a single plastic tea bag releases a staggering 11.6 billion microplastic and 3.1 billion nanoplastic particles in your cup of tea). In fact, a study for WWF by researchers at the University of Newcastle, Australia, points out that a human ingests approximately 5 grams of plastic per week, roughly equal to chomping one credit card.

Going Green

There are several plastic-free options available. For instance, you can support Pukka Teas, which makes its tea bags from organic cotton and folds them uniquely to seal; Clipper Teas, which uses plastic-free bags that are biodegradable, unbleached, and sealed with either bio-material or a wood cellulose-based binder; Numi Tea, with its compostable plant-based tea wrappers; and Tea Pigs, which makes tea bags from cornstarch, paper, and wood pulp.

You could also take a lesson from my own simple tea ritual. I favor loose-leaf green and herbal teas, take a handful of lemon grass with a little crushed ginger, and add honey. Some days, I savor a feel-good local blend with adaptogens (drink these with caution after checking with your doctor), including shatavari (Asparagus racemosus) and ashwagandha (Withania somnifera). They’re all brewed in my small porcelain tea pot and drunk from a tiny cup, with the remnants spooned off into my compost bin. On rainy days, a cup of kadak cutting chai—a potent, thick, sugary, caramel-colored brew laden with masala that’s drunk in a small quantity and prepared in a pan—will do. As for my grandmother, tea is a beverage of comfort, adaptable to your whims and fancies. Wherever in the world you are, it takes you home.

View Article Sources
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