Out of the brew: Here’s how tea drinking culture in India is keeping pace with changing times and tastes

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Gone are the days of the aristocratic afternoon or high tea associated with medieval England when a high seating table would be decked with exquisite table linens and fine porcelain tea-sets comprising ornate kettles, silver spoons and urns, and the ubiquitous beverage enjoyed with tea cakes, scones, and cheese on toast.

Today, the tea drinking culture in the second largest tea producing country in the world has come to mean much more than just great opulence or refinement and is keeping steady pace with the changing times and tastes.Whether it is English tea served with prawn peri-peri tarts at The Lodhi in New Delhi or a signature jasmine tea with southern China-inspired clay pot meal bowls at the Spicy Duck in Taj Palace, the teatime ritual—synonymous with constant laughter, conversation and socialisation over a hearty meal—is undergoing a rapid transformation.

“Chai has always kept pace with changing times and tastes. It is the hot favourite and the cold choice for Gen X, Y and Z alike, enjoyed as bobba tea in Taiwan (bubble tea, also known as pearl milk tea), masala chai in India, green tea in the teahouses of China and iced tea in the US,” says Bala Sarda, CEO and founder of Vahdam India, a brand known for its premium tea blends.

The chai’s popularity has also given rise to a range of new-age snacks that go well in the morning as well as in the evening, such as roasted black chana with puffed rice, mixed nuts and seeds (trail mix), wheat/ quinoa/ bajra puffs, roasted makhanas (fox nuts), and whole fruit, cucumber/ celery/ carrot sticks with hummus dip.

Talk about tea and the other thing that comes to your mind is samosa—the small triangular pastry with a savoury filling that was declared India’s ‘most binged snack’ of 2021 by food ordering and delivery platform Swiggy. Taking the humble samosa a step further, Bengaluru- and Gurugram-based QSR brand Samosa Party is now trying to make it a global snack by adding new flavours. “In January, we started the ‘bucket of the month’ initiative with new flavours such as pizza samosas and Tex Mex samosas with jalapeno cheese dip,” says Amit Nanwani, co-founder of Samosa Party.

While we are talking about samosas, don’t think that the market is offering only unhealthy snacks, deep fried and loaded with salt and empty calories. For instance, tea-cafe chain Chaayos serves handcrafted and healthy snacks like egg-white chaat and kala chana chaat, which are high in natural protein and fibre content.

The popular snacks are being offered with home-style servings of the vintage brew in a funky cafe format. Hibiscus mulethi green tea, chamomile flower tea and kadak chai and chatpata nashta (tasty snacks) are some of the bestsellers at Chaayos.

Similarly, at Mister Chai, a popular tea lounge in Shangri-La Eros New Delhi, the regional street food of India is best served the fusion way without compromising on hygiene and flavour. Its ‘cutting chai—the tapri style’ is infused with ginger and cinnamon, and served in a kettle with a box of rusk, namak para (spiced and savoury fried bites), besides other signature specialities like butter chicken samosa, masaledar aloo chaat, vada pav, tikka tacos, Mumbai masala club sandwich, Kolkata beetroot chops, corn bhel (corn, cucumber, cilantro, tomatoes, onions, rice puffs and tangy tamarind sauce) and chaat papdi and gol-gappas (semolina puffs with curd and tangy water) in a luxurious set-up.

“It would be wrong to say that Indian street food can only taste best when eaten on the streets. In a typical chai-chakna-hygiene setting, savouries paired with tea offer a delectable street food experience and all this in a plush tea lounge,” says Gagandeep Singh Sawhney, executive chef, Shangri-La Eros New Delhi.