CHAI … it’s sordid beginnings

In many languages “cha” or “chai” is the word for tea.  Chai, or Masala tea as it is called in India, is that milky, spicy, sweet, hot beverage we’ve all come to love.  Knowing the humble origins of chai, I’m amazed when I go to stores like Home Goods or TJ Maxx or even Ocean State Job Lot to see ‘chai‘ in shelf-stable packages, pre-made and ready to drink.  Actually I shouldn’t be surprised at all.  As much as we might love this spicy beverage, we’ve become a country in which we are so busy, we don’t have time to sit, relax and enjoy the process of … making chai, baking bread, growing herbs .  I’m one of those people, however, who tries to make time for it all.

I find the story of how Chai began quite fascinating, because it tells the story of tea … with all its grit, espionage, smuggling and deceit.  Chai has one of those sordid origins where it was bred out of necessity, much like soul food.  People had to eat (or in this case, drink) what was available.  If they didn’t they went hungry, and in most cases, they would die.

Let’s start at the very beginning.  It was 1848 and the East India Company had lost its monopoly on the China tea trade.  The Chinese were resentful that Britain attempted to addict their entire nation to opium and refused to do business with them.  The whole of Great Britain was now demanding “tea” and It was imperative that the British government establish its own independent tea supply.  But where and how?

Among botanist Robert Fortune’s tasks in China was to learn the procedure for manufacturing tea, as shown in this 18th century tea plantation. (The Granger Collection, New York)

A Scotsman by the name of Robert Fortune, curator and botanist of the Royal Horticultural Society, was asked by the East India Company to go on a “tea-discovery” mission to China.  Little did Fortune know that he was about to become an international man of espionage.  For three years, disguised as a Mandarin, Fortune visited the most famous tea districts, kept meticulous notes on the soil, the pruning, plucking and manufacturing process, and systematically collected seeds and plants.  By 1851, Fortune had amassed such knowledge, and plants, that he filled four vessels sailing from Hong Kong to Calcutta with thousands of plants, seedlings and had hired a team of experienced Chinese tea workers.

While Robert Fortune was busy collecting specimens, Robert Bruce, a fellow Scotsman, was meeting with one of the chiefs of the Singpho tribe in Assam, India.  The Singpho tribe, as the Chinese and other tribes in Southeast Asia, had also been making tea for centuries.   A tea committee was immediately formed to explore the possibilities of growing tea in this Assam region, which lies just to the west of China.

And then the takeover began.  Britain appeared to align themselves with the tribes, but their intent was to take over this territory.  They began by moving into this area and stripping the tribal people of their land, and then increasing the land tax to the point where the Assamese were unable to pay it.  This forced the Assamese to work clearing their own swampy, mosquito-laden land for the future tea gardens of their new British land “lords”.

These indigenous people had no experience laboring in this manner, and under deplorable working conditions.  The  British viewed them as “lazy, indolent and miserable”.  As a result, the British began “importing” labor from other parts of India. This “importing” of labor was, in fact, slavery.  Recruiting agents were sent into rural areas and promised a good wage and better life to men, women and children … ‘recruits’ who willing to immigrate to Assam.  When they had enough ‘recruits’ from one area, they loaded them onto overcrowded boats with appalling conditions for the six- to eight-week trip up the Brahmaputra River.  Many of the men, women and children, or ‘coolies’ as they were called (the term ‘coolie’ is believed to originate from the Tamil word for wages, ‘kuli’), died from cholera, dysentery, malaria or typhoid fever.  The ones who did survive were put to work no matter how sick, hungry or tired.  They were managed with whips, lived in pitiful huts, were chronically ill and malnourished, and unable to escape.

Most often the only source of nourishment for the ‘coolies’ was rice and tea.  No, not a good quality tea, but tea made from the dregs of the pluckings, infused with some milk for nourishment, sugar for energy, and spices to cover up the bad taste.   As a result, coolies suffered a very high mortality rate.  Between 1863 and 1866 half of the 84,000 laborers brought into this area died.  As I said, the history of “tea” and this now-beloved drink isn’t the sweetest tale.  Many thousands upon thousands of people died from malnourishment, disease and mistreatment.

Born out of necessity, today “chai” is the national drink of India. From sipping chai in someone’s home, while making a purchase in a shop, at a train station, or on a street corner, you can’t visit India without experiencing this unique culture.   Chaiwallahs are on every street corner in every village and town, ready to serve you a small cup or glass of this wonderful beverage.  Each may have their own special recipe or preparation style, but rest assured, each is as delicious as the next.

Everywhere in India there are chaiwallahs on the street with large kettles selling their spicy tea steeped with boiled milk and sugar. Because of the stiff competition between chaiwallahs, each tries to develop a unique style.

While specific recipes can vary, the black tea is always brewed with a blend of spices, generally cinnamon, cardamom, pepper, ginger, and cloves, with the addition of milk and sugar or honey.  In the U.S., some folks steep their tea together with milk, spices and sweetener. Others steep the tea and spices together, then add the milk and sweetener. A third group steeps the tea, stirs in the sweetener, and enjoys it without milk. It’s your choice.

We enjoy ours best steeped in a saucepan for 10 minutes or more with equal parts water and milk and one teaspoon of tea, spices and sugar for every 8 ounces of liquid.  Milk may burn if the heat is too high, so steep the heat at a medium temperature for about 10 to 15 minutes. After steeping, strain into a pot, and enjoy.

Yes, making it yourself does take about 15 minutes or more, and you can certainly buy prepared chai in bottles or packages, or even dry chai mixes, but taking those 15 minutes is so worthwhile.  And, if you make too much, just put it into the refrigerator and enjoy it cold the next day, over ice, or reheat it.  In the summertime, I love to make chai shakes … with a scoop of vanilla ice cream in the blender.  Try it.  It’s absolutely delicious!!

I may occasionally order a chai (notice I didn’t say “chai latté”), in a café, but I really enjoy making it at home.  The aroma of those comforting spices steeping in that dark, rich tea just relaxes the senses and puts me in that “happy” place.

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References:  TEA by Roy Moxham, The Heritage of Indian Tea by D.K. Taknet, For All The Tea in China by Sarah Rose, Academia, Teatulia, Smithsonian

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Not for “All the Tea in China” . . .

Who remembers this phrase?  “No way, no sir, not for all the Tea in China!”  That phrase was not to be challenged.  You meant ‘no’ and you were standing firm.

I believe the phrase began around the turn of the century.  China was the largest producer and exporter of the world’s most popular beverage and everyone knew it.  With more than 45 countries producing tea today, China still continues to produce more tea than any of the other tea-growing countries.  They have, however, dropped to No. 3 in exporting.  India, Kenya and Sri Lanka have taken over as the largest exporters of tea. These three countries alone produce the more popular CTC (crushed, torn, curled) grade of tea, which is blended and appears in your grocery stores as tea bags.  But apparently India, Kenya and Sri Lanka are producing too much black tea because now there appears to be a glut of tea in the marketplace and prices are falling.  It seems consumers (especially Millennials) are finally demanding higher-quality teas, green teas, oolongs and specialty teas.

Who is drinking all this tea?  According to Quartz, the biggest tea drinkers in the world live in Turkey!  Which is amazing to me.  I would definitely have thought it was the U.K.  Having been to Turkey, I did not notice an overwhelming tea-drinking culture.  Tea was served in restaurants, cafes, and always offered in upscale retail shops and tourist areas, but statistics don’t lie.  They report that each person in Turkey drinks, on average, 6.96 pounds of tea each year, whereas a U.K. tea drinker enjoys 4.83 pounds each year.  Could it be that in Turkey they use twice as much “tea” to make a cup?

So how much tea does the average American drink?  In 2014 AmFotolia cover man drinking teaericans enjoyed over 80 BILLION cups of tea!   But this research is also flawed, because Americans drink more ready-to-drink bottled tea than any other country, not to mention powdered tea-drink mixes. According to the Tea Market Report by the American Botanical Council tea-drinking Americans still prefer black tea –  84% drink black tea – while only 15% drink green and the remainder drink oolong, white, etc.

It’s almost impossible today to watch television and not see an advertisement for one bottled tea or another.  Lipton may be the leader in most ad dollars spent, but six years ago Snapple introduced an ad that had everyone talking about tea.  See if you remember this ……

The ready-to-drink, bottled tea market is huge today and negatively impacting the soft drink market.  Sales of carbonated soda beverages have dropped steadily for the past nine years as consumers are choosing healthier alternatives in a ready-to-drink beverage.  Chai concentrates are another way of enjoying convenient, prepared tea and are very popular.  Another fast growing segment of today’s tea drinking society is actually not tea at all, but herbal beverages.   (Yes, I know, everyone still calls it “tea”.)  The herbal ready-to-drink market is also growing rapidly, with the most popular herbs being chamomile, ginger, echinacea, mint, dandelion and valerian root.

Matcha-flavored KitKat Bars

Matcha-flavored KitKat Bars

But it’s not all about tea drinking.  When was the last time you went into CVS or Target and noticed all the ‘tea-related’ products.  Not only can you buy green tea concentrates and capsules to supplement your diet and help you lose weight, you can choose from a variety of green tea shampoos and conditioners.  Green teas and white teas are incorporated into soaps and body washes, face and body creams.  Have you tried green tea ice cream?  It has been around for years and is delicious!  How about Earl Grey-infused truffles?  Matcha-infused KitKat bars?  Not to mention Tea-smoked duck and Lapsang Souchong bbq sauce?

Green Tea Mint Julep

Green Tea Mint Julep

Mixologists in all the upscale hotels and restaurants are using tea concentrates in their cocktails.  Tea-tini anyone?  According to the Sterling Rice Group, a Boulder, Colorado-based communications firm, TEA is one of the top food trends this year.  Chefs everywhere are incorporating TEA into their recipes.  If you haven’t already, you’ll soon be seeing tea on menus in everything from appetizers to entrees.

There are cookbooks now dedicated to using “tea” as an integral part of the recipe.   CULINARY TEA by local chef Cynthia Gold is fabulous with over 150 recipes using “tea”.  TEA COOKBOOK by Tonia George is another great cookbook using whole leaf tea in its recipes.  Whether sweet or savory, tea is a versatile ingredient that can be used in many recipes …… and we haven’t even talked about how good it is for you!

So jump on the “tea trend” and enjoy your tea.  It’s not just about “All the Tea in China” anymore.  It’s tea anyway you can get it!

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Top 10 Tea Producing Countries

and the amount of tea they produce*

1. China = 1,000,130 tons  –  2. India  = 900,000 tons  –  3. Kenya = 303,000 tons
4. Sri Lanka = 295,000 tons  –  5. Turkey = 175,000 tons – 6. Indonesia = 157,000 tons
7. Vietnam  = 117,000 tons  –  8. Japan = 89,000 tons  –  9. Argentina = 69,000 tons
10. Iran = 84,000 tons

* These figures are lower than the overall high production of 2013.

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References:  World Tea News, Tea Market Report, Quartz, TEA USA