India’s north-eastern state of Assam is the only place besides south-east China where tea is a native shrub. With its torrential monsoon rains and high humidity, it has the ideal climate for tea cultivation. The British ‘discovered’ tea growing in Assam in the 1830s, right at the time when trading relationships with China were growing increasingly fraught. While the British were buying silk, porcelain, and above all tea in huge quantities, the Chinese spurned British wool and colonial cotton, accepting only silver. This trade imbalance led the British to force the Chinese to buy a product they genuinely could not get enough of – opium.
Something like a gold rush soon hit this frontier province. The British East India Company took a strain of the tea bush grown by the local Singhpo tribe and, in the usual manner, systematically expropriated land from the locals to plant it in huge estates. By the end of the century, Assam was the largest exporter of tea to Britain, and it remains the largest tea producing region in the world today.
Strangely enough, while tea was flooding out of India, it’s said that only the anglicised sections of the Indian upper classes had acquired a taste for it. Coffee had been the traditional drink of choice in South India since trade with the Middle East brought it over in the 1600s, while in the dairy-producing North milk was preferred. In the 1950s, however, faced with a glut of low-grade tea, the India Tea Board began aggressively marketing it in the northern states.
History records a final twist to this story. In the last decade, India’s economy has boomed while the UK’s has faltered, and Indian companies have taken over many quintessentially English firms. Among these are two of the most recognisable tea traders – Tetley and Typhoo.
While our chai recipe is a closely guarded secret, Chef/Owner Alun Sperring was willing to share a few top tips:
1. Add a little pepper to your chai. To give it an extra zing, add a few whole peppercorns – any more it will take on an acerbic edge. This addition gives a more North Indian style of chai, with warm spices and a stronger brew. In South India, a more milky chai is preferred, with the emphasis on green cardamom and ginger.
2. Don’t let the sugar cook. If it caramelises in the pan, it will mask many of the spice flavours. Simply add it at the end.
3. Let your spices infuse. Chef Alun Sperring prefers to boil his spices for five to ten minutes, and remove the resulting liquor from the heat. Add the tea and cover to infuse normally. This allows the warm spices to compliment, and not overwhelm, the fresh and malty flavour of Assam.
4. Don’t overbrew – strain the chai before the spices are overwhelmed by the heavy tannins in the tea.
5. Mix it up. Chai is a very individual drink, so keep experimenting to find the perfect brew and blend of spices for your taste.