What makes a true chai-wallah?

Photo by Jorge Garcia on Unsplash

As an Indian, the above question is sure to raise more than just a few eyebrows. Aside from being a crude & classist reference to the prime minister, both parts of the phrase hark back to the days of colonial rule. Chai - the local term for tea and wallah - a generic term for a seller or vendor, became part of the English lingo during imperial rule.

But what I'm referring to in this text is neither of these. Rather, I'm looking at the literal translation of the phrase 'chai wallah' and what it really means. The meaning of Chai, or tea, is quite unambiguous. Wallah, on the other hand, is a common suffix used in a variety of different use-case. From the common 'sabji-wala' or vegetable seller to 'gaon wala' or villager, there's quite a huge range in its usage. So, let's understand the origin of the term wallah.

Wallah, or vala ('doer' in Hindi) is derived from the Sanskrit word 'pālaka', which means 'keeper' or 'owner' or 'protector'. Suddenly, terms like 'gaon wala' provide a much more nuanced meaning. A villager is not just an inhabitant of a village - he or she is a keeper, a protector and also an owner of the village. So, a chai-wallah is, if we are to stay true to the transliteration, a 'keeper of tea'. And so, the question in the title of this text becomes, "Who is a true keeper of tea?".

A true keeper of tea is one who takes charge, one who protects and one who is considered as an owner of tea. This keeper, just like a wicket-keeper or goal-keeper, will stand guard, protecting the realm of tea. But what does that really mean? For that, we have to take a deeper dive into the world of tea.

Let's start with the main varieties, categorized according to the type of leaf and oxidation or processing. There is black tea, of course. There's white too, and green and something called Oolong and another called Pu-erh. Then there are flavors, obtained by adding flowers, herbs, fruits or other natural flavors to black, green or oolong teas. Some well known examples are Earl Grey, Jasmine, Lemon teas and Masala chai.

Black tea, the most commonly consumed type of tea in India, is fully oxidized and has a darker appearance, stronger flavor and higher caffeine content compared to other teas. Black teas can be consumed directly or with sugar, milk or lemon. In India, we overwhelmingly prefer to add milk & sugar/sweetner. Also, another Indian feature is boiling the tea leaves in water rather than steeping, i.e. leaving the leaves in heated water to release the flavour and nutrients. The ideal time for brewing black tea is 2-3 minutes at a temperature of 95-100 C.

Green tea is unoxidized tea. The leaves are heated soon after picking in order to destroy the enzymes that cause oxidation. This type of processing preserves a high level of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals accounting for the various health benefits of green tea. The infusion is pale greenish yellow in colour and tastes light and grassy. It is best consumed without any additives, although some people may prefer to add lemon or a sweetener but not milk. The ideal time for brewing green tea is 3-4 minutes at a temperature of 70-80 C.

Oolong tea is semi-oxidized, so the leaf is allowed to sit for around 2-4 hours, before being heated up to halt oxidization. The amount of oxidation, which can range from 8% to 80%, affects the flavour and appearance of the tea. Longer oxidation results in a darker oolong which is more similar in taste to a black tea, while shorter oxidation makes it more similar in nature to green tea. When steeped, Oolong tea produces golden or light brown tea with a very delicate flavour resembling neither black nor green tea. The ideal time for brewing Oolong tea is 4-5 minutes at a temperature of 90 C.

Oolong Tea

White tea is the least processed of all teas. Only the unopened buds and young leaves covered in silver fuzz are used, and they are merely withered and dried. White tea produces a very light coloured infusion with mild flavour. Its caffeine content is even lower than that of green tea and is considered to have a very high level of antioxidants. White tea is best consumed without any additives at all. Brewing time & temperature for White tea is similar to Oolong tea.

Pu-erh tea is a special type of tea that comes from the Yunnan province of China and is known for its earthy flavour. It is made out of tea plucked from wild tea trees rather than cultivated bushes and the leaves go through microbial fermentation by pressing the raw leaves together and then storing them for maturity. Pu-erh tea can be either black or green depending on the level of oxidation allowed in the process.

Alright, now that we are versed with the main varieties, let's take a look at the flavored and other types of tea, focusing on a few well known ones.

Earl Grey is almost ubiquitous in most hotel bedsides for your morning cuppa. It is prepared by adding extract of Bergamot, a citrus fruit, to black tea. Interestingly, it was created in the 1800s to mask the flavor of cheap tea and to pass it off as a premium tea. But as you might know from the AMUL butter story, some tastes catch on unintentionally. Of course, nowadays, there's Earl Grey tea that is indeed premium - blending the finest of black tea & the best Italian Bergamot.

What about Masala chai, that quintessentially Indian favorite? A mix of black tea with traditional spices like cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and ginger.It is usually prepared by boiling water and milk along with the tea and spices and sweetened with sugar. The story goes that when tea was first grown in India, it was not a popular beverage among the locals. Hence some Indian vendors began adding it to a local drink called 'kadha' which was water and milk boiled with spices. That's how Masala chai was born!

The quintessentially Indian 'Masala' Chai

Then, there's Jasmine tea. It is tea infused with the aroma of jasmine blossoms. It is the most popular scented tea of China. It is usually made with green tea, but white, oolong and black teas are also used. The method of infusing the scent of jasmine flowers into the tea is very laborious and takes several days. The tea is stored with the flowers in a special room with controlled humidity. This is done during night as that is when the jasmine flowers bloom. The process is repeated over several nights to get the right level of scent.

There is no limit to the world of flavored tea, only the bounds of the tea-blenders. Some exotic flavors include a blend of green and white tea with lychee and peach flavors while another blends black tea with Pineapple, Lemongrass and Ginger.

Finally, we come across a term some of you might have noticed on the packaging of some tea labels, Tisane. Tisanes are the correct term for herbal infusions from other plants (non-tea). Examples include chamomile, peppermint etc. The herbal infusions in these are usually fruits and flowers. The important thing to note here is that, although they are not really considered as tea by purists, many flowers have therapeutic properties and calming effects while a lot of fruits contain high levels of antioxidants. In addition, they don't contain caffeine and as such, are well suited for drinking before going to bed.

Which brings me to the point about the true chai-wallah. The protector of the realm. The keeper of the domain. He or she understands that there is no 'right' way of consuming tea. It can be prepared & consumed as per taste. However, there are often certain methods that extract the maximum from the tea leaves in terms of flavor, color, nutrients and so, it is imperative to be well aware & recommend these to the discerning tea drinker. For a tea connoisseur for instance, the specific flush is important and the true chai-wallah will know when to recommend what. By the way, flush refers to the time of year when tea leaves are plucked. First flush is defined as the very first plucking of a tea plant’s harvest season. The new growth leaves plucked during First flush are the youngest and most tender part of the tea plant and are said to yield the purest and freshest cup of tea that plant is capable of producing. Subsequent flushes include second flush, monsoon flush and autumn flush. Each additional flush yields different flavor and aroma characteristics as the growing season for that tea plant progresses.

Tea Connoisseurs, or should we say true chai wallaha?

By now you probably have a sufficient idea about chai and might even be looking forward to trying out something apart from your usual routine. Well, if that's the case, might we recommend checking out products from TGL Co. & Tea Monk, a couple of our gourmet tea & beverage partner brands? They know a tad or two about tea after all :)

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Now, enough talk. Why don't you just click here and watch a couple of product reviews from one of our partner influencers?



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