Taking Tea in India
When I arrived at field partner BJS on the first day of my fellowship, I was warmly greeted by staff, then swiftly escorted into the CEO’s office. The first order of business? Tea. “How would you like your tea, madam? Black or with milk?” “Um, with milk, please. Thank you!” It arrived in a beautiful white china teacup decorated in gold. A special guest cup, to be sure. There I sat with a few staff members as we got to know each other over tea. I felt so proper and sophisticated, quickly turning my back on the trusty mug of joe that got me through many years of working in Los Angeles. I had certainly drunk tea at home and had actually accumulated quite a collection, but this was different. The ceremony was as sweet as the tea itself (and Indians aren’t light handed with the sugar!). One of the jobs of the office assistant is to prepare tea for staff and guests. At BJS, that person is Arindam.
So each day begins with a tea offering. I usually take it with milk, but sometimes I throw him off and ask for lal cha (black tea). Lal actually means “red”, but since westerners refer to tea without milk as black tea, you’ve got your translation. Milk tea is dudh cha, which literally translates to dudh (milk) cha (tea).
Indians always offer guests a cup of tea, whether at work or home. On my second day, a bank representative came to the BJS office for a meeting, and she got the pretty china cup! The rest of us were all offered tea as well, and we drank together. I gave a presentation a few days later, and as everyone gathered, tea was passed around. I doubt a business deal is ever made without its presence.
Consumption of tea in India can be traced back to about 700 BC, but it wasn’t commercially produced until the arrival of the British East India Company in the early 1800s. India is one of the largest tea producers in the world, along with Sri Lanka, China and (surprisingly) Kenya. Darjeeling and Assam are the largest tea regions in the country, both in the north.
Unlike the steeping method used in the Western world, Indian tea is typically boiled. Loose tea leaves swirl in a pot of water as it's heated. If making milk tea, which is most commonly drunk, milk and sugar are added to the pot and returned to a boil before being strained into cups. Sometimes ginger and/or cardamom are added to produce masala chai, a wonderfully rich and subtly spicy concoction that is WORLDS away from the sickly sweet dredge that comes out of a paper carton and mixed with milk to produce “chai lattes” in some ubiquitous coffee houses. But no judgment Here, tea stalls can be found on nearly every street corner. The cha wallah mans the cart and pours his infectious brew into a paper cup, plastic cup or matir bhar, literally translated as “mud cup”. The latter is thin earthenware fired in a kiln, meant to be disposed of after using. How ingenious.
On a recent road trip to one of the branch offices, we stopped for a tea break on the way up, and again on the way back. The journey was long- more than three hours each way- so the pit stops were welcomed. Both times I watched the cha wallah intently as he prepared our addictive brew, and took pleasure in each satisfying sip.
There are many ways to take tea in India, including a version with sugar, lemon and a dash of salt, but I prefer sweet and creamy milk tea or masala chai. There’s something regal, yet completely pedestrian about the tea culture here. From street-side stalls where it can be had for less than a dime, to corporate boardrooms, it’s a unifier among Indians. And it makes me feel right at home.