The Love of Tea

Tea Waiter in Assam
James Roper

Wherever you are in India, you're never far from a tea vendor peddling chai, a sweet, milky tea, from trays of steaming glasses. India is the top consumer of tea on the planet, but this wasn't always the case. While tea is native to the subcontinent—an indigenous variety, Camellia sinensis var. assamica, grows in the northeastern state of Assam—it wasn't until after the British had established plantations to supply the UK that the Indian tea plant was cultivated. For decades, nearly all of India's tea was exported. In 1881, however, the Indian Tea Association was formed to promote tea drinking within the country, and Indians embraced it. Each region puts its stamp on the drink. In the north, a chai wallah might infuse the brew with a smashed nub of ginger and finish it with a sprinkle of pink salt or threads of saffron. And in the northeast, epicenter of India's tea industry, you'll find an extravagantly spiced version known as masala chai suffused with ginger, clove, cardamom, cinnamon, and black pepper. Yet here in the south, they like their chai flavors pure: just milk and sugar, double brewed with a fistful of fragrant black tea.