Behind The Leaf: Indian Black Teas

indianblack1

India is known for some of the most delicious black teas. I’m sure you’ve had many of them in blends and didn’t even know it! They can be bold and brisk, or delicate and nuanced. India is also starting to produce white, green, and oolong teas, but for today we’re going to stick with the black teas that grow all throughout the country.

There are three main growing regions in India: Assam, Nilgiri Hills, and Darjeeling. These three areas make delicious black teas that taste very different from one another. That’s due to terroir. The climate, altitude and soil all have an effect on the flavors. Also the plant cultivars used also change the flavor.

First up, let’s discuss Assam- This region is in Northeast India near Burma. It is a tropical region that has about 900 gardens! The elevation is about sea level, and the weather is mild and can get very hot during monsoon season. Much of the tea grown in this region is processed as CTC (cut, tear, curl) tea. Small cut leaves that create an even stronger brew that steeps up quite quickly. The cultivar that grows here is camellia sinensis var. assamica and was of course named after the region. The tea is brisk and malty. It can commonly be found in English Breakfast and English Afternoon blends. It’s made to steep up strong, as the Brits like to add milk and sweetener to their cups. This is also a tea commonly used for Masala chai.

Nilgiri is a mountainous region of southeast India and the 3rd largest tea growing area. Growing here started in the mid-19th century. The teas are well balanced and quite dark with a bit of fruit and spice. The climate is tropical and ideal for year-round growing. Many of the plants here are of the Assamica variety, and most of the teas are processed using the CTC method. Can you believe there are more than 30,000 gardens in this area?? That’s an immense amount of tea!

Finally the area most tea lovers know, Darjeeling. Teas here are grown in the Indian Himalayas. The first plantation in Darjeeling was started in 1856, and today there are about 86 tea gardens. The gardens are planted on the slopes of the Himalayan foothills, which help the plants drain well from the heavy rains that pass through the region.  There is just the right amount of cloud cover high at this altitude to give the plants the perfect amount of sunlight. The frequently foggy atmosphere creates a beautiful mist that hydrates and protects the plants while keeping them at an ideal temperature. The plant variety here is different from Nilgiri and Assam. It’s mostly comprised of camellia sinensis var sinensis, which is a smaller leaf than Assamica and actually is native to China. The British brought seeds of the plant to the region in 1841 and realized it was a perfect climate for growing. To learn a little more about the picking seasons and flavors of Darjeeling teas, you can check out my previous post here. To really appreciate the beauty of Darjeeling tea, it’s best to find teas grown and processed from just one estate.

Dearies, next time you drink a black tea blend, you can think about all of the beautiful areas of India where your tea is grown. I hope you try as many varieties as you can to learn how they differ.

Tea Traditions Around the World, Pt. 1

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I’ve traveled all over with world with Char and recently Kat and I have taken a few adventures as well. One thing we’ve learned is tea can be found in every corner of the globe. I’ve seen it offered as a sign of hospitality, expertly prepared in an intricate ceremony, served at large gatherings, and of course just consumed at all times of the day. There are so many cultures around the world that enjoy tea. It would take pages and pages to discuss it! Here are a few places where we’ve had memorable cups of tea.

In Morocco, we were greeted with mint tea everywhere we went. Many households offer it to guests in greeting when they visit. It is a sign of hospitality we greatly enjoyed. These teas are a mixture of green tea and mint leaves, often served quite sweet. I loved how it is usually served in little glasses and poured out of a teapot perched high above the glass. It is theatrical and delicious! I remember how lovely those vibrant green mint leaves looked floating in the tea, dancing as they poured into the cup.

To re-create Moroccan mint tea at home, Kat often brews a pot of green tea and will add loads of mint to each cup. For the colder months when mint isn’t available, Kat picked up a box of Wegmans Peppermint Tea to add to her green tea. This tea only contains cooling, refreshing peppermint so it is a perfect substitute to using the leafy green herb. After bringing this tea home from the store, Kat was surprised at just how aromatic it was.  She drinks it alone to relax in the evenings, or uses it for her Moroccan tea fix. After a few sips she imagines she’s sitting amongst the vibrant Arabic art and architecture.

In India, masala chai of course is the drink of choice. Whenever I think of India I see steaming cups of fresh tea infused with ginger, cardamom, cloves and pepper. You can find it on the streets sold by chai wallahs.  I recently discussed masala chai in a previous post. The flavor of masala chai depends on the region you visit. I recently found this wonderful website that tells stories of the chai wallahs in India. Reading through it makes me wish Kat would whisk me back there.

In Russia, black tea is made into a concentrated brew and then diluted with boiling water. Traditionally the water was boiled with a samovar, but these days the gorgeous urns are mostly ornamental. You can find a few tips on how to create the concentrated tea and water mixture here.  Russian tea is often sweetened with a spoonful of jam. The teas are usually smoked black blends, and adding jam gives an amazing combination of smoky and sweet.

In China tea is of course ubiquitous. You’ll find green, oolong, puerh, white, and black teas depending on the region. People often prepare tea with the leaves directly in the water and leave them in when it’s time to drink. They’ll simply use their teeth to act as a strainer. This technique is often called ‘grandpa style’ brewing. Grandpa style is super easy to do, and it only requires tea and a cup or bowl to drink out of. For more details on brewing tea this way, check out Nicole Martin’s helpful YouTube video. Kat’s brother-in-law recently visited China and I overheard him explaining that many people walk around with a plastic tumbler filled with leaves that they drink from all day long. They refill the water as needed.

These are so many more ways to enjoy tea around the world, so stay tuned for another post about tea in other countries! Is there a tea culture that you’d like to learn more about? Do let me know and I’ll be happy to post about it.

Behind The Leaf: Masala Chai

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I know we’ve talked about autumn teas, and there is another tea perfect for this time of year. Do you enjoy Masala Chai? It’s lovely any time of year, but the milky, spicy, sweet flavor is perfect for walks through the crisp autumn air and warming up on a chilly morning. The spices wake up your senses and give you an extra spring in your step.

You’ve probably had (or at least seen) a ‘chai latte’ in cafes and restaurants. Dearies for steep’s sake, chai translates to ‘tea’ so you are actually just saying ‘tea tea’! Masala chai is the spiced tea we are talking about. Although most places refer to it as ‘chai’, you know now the appropriate way to refer to it!

Masala chai is a staple in parts of India where it is made at home and sold on the street. The vendors selling the fragrant tea are called chai wallahs. Char drank many of cups from these vendors on her travels through India, and I had the pleasure of accompanying her. I will never forget those fragrant teas poured quickly with expert hands, or sitting in her suitcase during those bumpy train rides!

Masala chai started off as a medicinal drink of herbs, until the British started increasing tea production in the early 1800s and promoting tea drinking in India. Many families have their own version of masala chai. It almost always contains warming spices such as cardamom and ginger. It can also contain cinnamon, star anise, fennel, peppercorn, nutmeg and cloves.  The spices often vary by region. Milk and sweetener are also added. It is such a delicious drink!

Kat first started drinking masala chai after trying a latte at her local café. She enjoyed the spices but thought the brew was far too sweet. Then, after dining with friends at an authentic Indian restaurant, she had the real thing. Freshly made, masala chai is a delight for the senses. Spicy, sweet, silky, warming. She likes to drink it after her meal, to enjoy all of the flavors without anything getting in the way.

The method of preparation can also vary based on family. Kat likes to boil everything together on the stovetop to let all the flavors infuse and concentrate. Important things to always include are fresh spices, high-quality tea, and a rich tasting milk. A strong, malty Assam tea is a great choice but you can use any black tea you’d like.

Kat’s recipe for masala chai:

3 cups water

3-4 teaspoons black tea (Assam is preferred), or 3 teabags

1-inch piece of fresh ginger cut into pieces

5-8 cardamom pods

4 cloves

A cinnamon stick

3-4 black peppercorns

Milk of choice to taste

Choice of sweetener

Add the water to a small pot. Crack open the cardamom pods and add them along with remaining spices to the water. Bring to a boil. Add the tea and steep, then add the milk. Let the whole thing boil for 2-3 minutes. Remove from heat, strain, and enjoy. Add as much or as little sweetener as you like (you can also add the sweetener while you are boiling everything together if you’d like it better incorporated.

For a bit of a twist, adding vanilla or even chocolate to your masala chai will change it into a different yet equally delicious drink. Serving it warm is the more traditional way, but it is also delicious iced.

If you enjoy masala chai, what is your favorite way to drink it? Do you have your own secret recipe?

The Lovely Secrets of Chai

It is said that spices were used  in India for thousands of years for those seeking medicinal benefits. The variety of spices and preparation methods was intended as a remedy for some of the more minor complaints and was used as such for centuries. In the early 1800’s, as the British began developing their tea plantations throughout the Assam region of India, the resulting black tea began being incorporated into the local chai recipes. Unfortunately, black tea was too expensive for the greater population and it wasn’t until the 1960’s that black tea became more widely available at a lower price.

Chai Wallah (1)

This is when the chai that we are familiar with today began to be incorporated into daily life and the widespread appearance of the “chai wallah,” who is the street or train vendor of chai. I remember being transported through the streets of Calcutta in Char’s travel case. She loved nothing better than chatting with chai wallahs and trying their wares.

Traditional chai in India is made with freshly ground spices, with cardamom being the dominant ingredient but accented by cinnamon, ginger and peppercorn. This is sweetened with a unrefined cane sugar and whole milk.   However, with the growing popularity around the world, you’ll find a variety of sweeteners, milk preferences and ratios of spices. And while freshly ground spices are part of the magic of the drink, you’ll find more and more concentrated syrups that add that spiced characteristic.

Kat has recently been introducing her coffee-loving friends to chai, and they’re being pleasantly surprised. The creamy richness of chai warms the belly as well as the soul that they find very appealing. One or two of them have even replaced their morning coffee with a morning chai. I love it when we win over new friends!

Start your day with a little exotic adventure. Awaken your senses with the heady aromas of spices in your cup. You may be delighted with the result!

Tea Does Not Grow In London

When we hear the words, “afternoon tea,” most of us think of the very English tradition. And it has come to my attention that there is a notion that tea, itself, comes from England. While our English friends do drink copious amounts of the brewed leaf, the origins of the tea itself are as unique and varied as the tea cups in which afternoon tea is served!

tea estate

Tea requires an abundance of rain and sunlight and heat, which translates to high humidity.  They say (and I’ve witnessed) that when on a tea plantation, if the people are uncomfortable, the tea is happy.  England, on the opposite end of the weather spectrum, is known for rain, certainly, but not sun and heat. Which leads us to the amazing roll call of countries who have these elements in abundance! The tea estates of India provide a glorious spectrum of teas, many of them black teas from the Assam and Darjeeling regions. In China, there are endless tea plantations producing black and green tea. They have names such as Dragon Well (or Long Jing) and Pi Lo Chun. Japan is known for green Senchas and matcha, the bright green powder that can be whisked to frothy perfection.  Taiwan is known for its oolongs. Tea is also grown in regions of Africa and South America!

Each region has its own unique impact on the tea plants. The weather, the altitude, the insects, even the flora that grows along side the tea plants – each has its own unique and unrepeatable impact on the flavor that is ultimately delivered to your cup.

The English have given us so many tea-drinking traditions, and they pioneered much of the expansion of tea cultivation globally as a result of their colonization. But when it comes to the growing of the tea itself, you will not find it in London!

It tickles me to no end to think of the long journey these tea leaves have made from their corners of the world, and here they are now, in my cup!