India remains one of the world’s largest producers of tea, with more than 13,000 gardens employing a workforce some two-million strong.
Interestingly, about 70 percent of India’s tea is consumed within the country, itself. And many popular teas enjoyed worldwide – such as Assam and Darjeeling – are exclusive to the country.
From England to India
The tea plant Camellia sinensis is native to India and grew wild in the jungles of Assam for centuries before being cultivated for its properties as a beverage. Native Indians would use the leaves as an ingredient while cooking, blending it with garlic and oil.
But the history of Indian tea, proper, began in the 19th century when commercial production began to satisfy British demand.
Singhpo chief Bisa Gam had introduced Scotsman and East India Company employee Robert Bruce to the tea plants of the Assam region in 1823, confirming its existence and eliciting the realization that these local plants were likely far more suitable for propagation than Chinese transplants.
Ten years later, the East India Company – having lost its monopoly on Chinese trade – established a committee to spearhead the creation of initial nurseries in India.
While initial products utilized Chinese seedlings, the plants proved inadequate in the Assam heat, and the Empire gradually began to grow more accustomed to the flavor of tea grown in Assam.
Production ultimately spread to Darjeeling and Nilgiri regions of the country, and by the end of the 19th century, more Indian tea was being consumed than Chinese throughout the world.
But What About Chai?
“Chai” is the Hindi word for tea, but its contemporary usage also evokes the sweet, creamy Indian tea beverage that is blended with spices including cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and pepper.
As legend has it, the origins of chai date back 5,000 years, when an Indian king called for a spiced, healing beverage. Ingredients such as cloves and cinnamon were chosen for their pain relief and circulation-boosting properties, respectively. For centuries thereafter, the beverage was made with this medicinally endorsed blend of spices, but no black tea leaves.
It wasn’t until the popularization of the Assamica tea plant as a result of British involvement that black tea leaves, milk, and sugar became a customary part of the recipe, and “masala chai,” or “spiced tea,” was officially born.