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Masala Chai: Stirring Emotions, One Cup At A Time

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Delhi North chapter.

As a chai lover, I was proud when I got the news that India’s Masala Chai (a spiced tea made with milk and sugar) has been awarded the world’s second-best non-alcoholic beverage by TasteAtlas, a popular food and travel guide. It brings me ultimate joy when someone asks me, “Chai piyoge kya?” (Would you like to have a cup of tea?). Tea is considered an internal part of every Indian’s life. For millions of us, a day without a cup of chai is unimaginable. Curious to know more? Me too! Hence, for this week, I take a deep dive into tea’s rich history and attempt to understand India’s love for tea.

Note: In India, chai is referred to as a type of tea that has milk in it. However, in common parlance, chai is synonymous with tea and may not always specifically refer to milk tea

Tea and its ubiquitous presence in India

Tea, or Chai, has become an intrinsic part of households in India. For some, it’s a form of entertainment, while for others, it’s a means of livelihood. It serves as a refreshing drink and a pretext for discussions. Phrases like “chai pe charcha” (discussion over tea) and “chai pe milte hai!” (let’s meet for a cup of tea) are commonly used in everyday conversations, reflecting the shared taste that unites Indians. Tea symbolizes hospitality, often offered as a welcome gesture to guests and served with a variety of desi snacks such as kachoris, samosas, pakoras, etc.

Tea is deeply ingrained in the social, cultural, and economic fabric of India. Globally, tea ranks among the most popular and affordable beverages. For several decades, the tea industry has contributed to the Indian economy by generating revenues and providing employment opportunities to over 1 million people. India stands as the world’s second-largest tea producer, with more than 90% of tea consumed domestically, reflecting the deep-rooted love or perhaps obsession with tea (Haha, not guilty!).

The 75th Republic Day also saw the ‘love for tea’ in diplomacy. Prime Minister Modi and the Chief Guest, French President Macron, enjoyed masala tea at a roadside shop in Jaipur. This sent out a strong message of cultural confluence to the world.

In India, people of all ages begin their day with sips of tea. It’s a ritual to have tea in the evening after returning from work. Tea-making is also a matter of customs, with newly married brides often preparing tea for their in-laws. Debates, gossip, and discussions are often held during tea breaks or at tea stalls, further highlighting its social significance

You would rarely find an Indian railway platform without a tea stall, with echoing announcements of “garam-garam chai!” (hot tea) from the chaiwallahs (tea vendors). Tea has even become a political symbol, as seen in the “Chai pe Charcha” campaign launched by PM Narendra Modi in 2014. This contributed to the democratic zeal that even a common man like chaiwallah could become the Prime Minister of India.

A personal narrative on tea

The concept of tea shops, popularly known as “chai ki tapri”, has been romanticized by generations alike. As a comfort drink, tea holds a special place in my heart. I vividly remember learning to make tea in the sixth standard. I’ve observed how family gatherings and important events feel incomplete without chai. Tea is not just a beverage; it’s a fundamental part of a student’s life, offering solace during exams or providing an avenue for having rejuvenating discussions with friends. The Sudama Tea Stall at the University of Delhi is a famous spot for students. Its delectable tea is a must-try!

👯‍♀️ Related: Sudama’s Chai Symphony & Tom’s Maggie Marvel: Taste The DU Harmony

Tracing Its origin: From Ancient China to India’s heartlands

Tea was discovered in present-day China by King Shen Nung in 2700 B.C. The story goes as such – one fine day, while his servants were boiling water for him, a few plant leaves accidentally fell into the pot, changing the color of the liquid. The King loved the taste and found it refreshing. That’s how the beverage came into being. Tea was widely used across China due to its medicinal benefits and became a part of its culture due to the spread of Buddhism. However, it was kept secret for centuries until a Buddhist monk discovered the recipe in Japan, later reaching Europe.

Tea’s history in India is also interesting. The word “tea” was first mentioned by Samuel Pepys in 1600 as “Tcha.” He considered it an excellent drink approved by physicians. Tea was expensive in England in 1635, indicating its high demand. In 1662, a box of tea was given as part of a dowry to Catherine of Braganza by King Charles II. The elites in England started drinking tea and coffee after the Industrial Revolution, which increased the demand for these beverages.

In the eighteenth century, the East India Company faced competition from other European powers, and their resources shrank considerably. To counter this, the British started producing opium in India and traded it for tea in China. However, the British wanted to grow tea in India and started discussions to introduce Chinese tea saplings in 1788. Commercial tea plantations began in Assam in 1824 and extended to Darjeeling. Robert Fortune brought plant samples and seeds from China to Calcutta in 1853 to prepare home-bred tea. By the 1880s, Indian tea captured substantial markets across the US and Europe. In 1901, India became a significant market for the tea trade, and a Tea Cess Bill was passed in 1903. After World War I, Indian and Eurasian vendors started selling tea at railway stations. They improved the beverage by adding milk, and that’s how chai originated!

masala chai in popular culture: a Bollywood affair

If you are a Bollywood fan, then you may know how chai has played a pivotal role in various movies and songs.

“Tum, main aur do cup chai…” (You, me, and two cups of tea) from Wake Up Sid is etched in my memory! The dialogue, “Do dost ek pyaale mein chai piyenge, isse dosti badti hai.” (Two friends will drink tea from one cup, this increases friendship.), from Andaz Apna Apna has a different fan base altogether. Hasee Toh Phasee‘s one of the most beautiful scenes entails the protagonists having a cup of hot tea at a cycle stand. In Barfi, the three protagonists portrayed simplicity and satisfaction by dipping biscuits in tea-clad kulhads (earthen cups). There are several Bollywood songs which are inspired from chai such as “Ek, ek, ek chai ki pyaali”, “Shayad meri shaadi ka khayal”, “Ek garam chai ki piyali”, “Cheeni kum hai cheeni kum”.

Toh phir ho jaaye do cup chai? (so how about two cups of tea?)

On a concluding note, I’d mention a few health benefits of masala tea. The presence of clove and cardamon gives it antioxidant properties. This helps relieve stress, promotes the overall being of individuals, and prevents digestive issues like bloating. Its anti-inflammatory properties regulate blood sugar. This is due to the presence of cinnamon. Its warm and aromatic spices are also regarded to enhance moods. However, excessive consumption of anything is harmful. A high consumption of tea results in an unhealthy intake of sugar. This might be detrimental. Hence, moderation in anything should be ensured.

Nonetheless, tea will always be special for me because as Gulzaar says, “suno ek raay hai, ishq se behtar chai hai!” (here’s some advice – tea is better than love!).

P.S.: If you’ve read it till here, then check out the recipe!

👯‍♀️ Related: The Therapeutic Power of Tea: From Ancient Remedies to Modern Wellness
Samiksha Sharma is a Chapter Member of the Editorial Department at Her Campus Delhi North. In her journey of exploring different domains, she is inquisitive to write about entertainment, politics, concurrent issues, college life, and friendships. Besides this, she is a third year student of Political Science at Indraprastha College for Women. She was also the member of the Editorial team at National Service Scheme (NSS) Unit of IPCW and has written impactful articles for an NGO during her internship. She has also done an online content writing course with Terribly Tiny Tales (TTT) Official, and all of this has indeed awakened a passion for writing in her. In her free time, Samiksha enjoys watching Netflix, political satires and stand-ups on Youtube and other platforms, and listening to evergreen Bollywood songs and devotional music. She is a tea person who loves interacting with new people and exploring famous street food spots in and around Delhi-NCR. Besides all of this, she considers herself as a gastronome that loves cooking and would never say “no” to dancing or having discussions on politics, history and latest trends!