There are myriads of intriguing things about India. One of them undoubtedly is the beautiful “Chai culture” there is. You just don’t start your day without your cup of “subhah ki chai” (morning tea). From the most popular road-side tea stalls or “Chai Wallahs” (man who runs the tea-stalls), to “Ghar ki chai” (fresh brewed tea at Indian homes) to the not so preferred (but can’t do without, at work) tea-bag teas in offices…every “Chai” time has an amazing story in itself. And you could find the chai wallahs in every nook and corner in India.
“Chai” time in India is a little celebration, a tiny “bonding” time every Indian (over chai-peene ki age) steals each day at least twice or more, without fail. This time is to bond with whoever you join with over tea — friends, family, colleagues, strangers…and if with no one else, then with your own thoughts! Brief or prolonged, a “Chai-time” is a pure joy…
With this, I mark my entry into the “Tea-catalog” section in my blog. This section would take us through the amazing tea journey in India (and occasionally from other countries) with their lovely tell-a-tale. Every region in India makes it’s own type of tea — one which is unique in flavor, and is brewed or steeped differently than the other. The first one on my list has to be “Lebu Cha”, Calcutta’s favorite road side version of Lemon tea. Yes, my “tea-journey” had to start from Kolkata, from where it all began and expanded — “The Tea Culture in India”!
Ironically, coffee came to India in the 17th century, much before we knew about tea. Even by the 1940’s, when India was drinking this hot beverage, tea wasn’t considered or wasn’t really the mass national drink, it is today. It is believed that tea was first made by the Chinese, as early as in 2nd century B.C. The Dutch East India company apparently imported the 1st tea into Europe. Though tea leaves did grow wild in the state of Assam and tea plants have always existed in India, it wasn’t before the “formal tea” was first introduced by the British in Calcutta (the then capital of colonial India), that Indians ever knew about this drink. And do you think the British East India Company would do such a favor? Well, that was because they wanted to break the Chinese monopoly over tea-production. Earlier tea in England was a drink only of the wealthy and it was breaking British treasury to import so much tea all the way from China. So The British started using Chinese tea-seeds and techniques to have tea cultivated in Assam. The tea gardens then were spread to Darjeeling and then eventually to southern India. After India started cultivating Tea, and it’s cost for the British dropped remarkably, tea became an affordable “drink for all” in England.
In Bengal, particularly the anglicized Indians started drinking tea first — and they did it in a very English manner — they were more fond of steeping the leaves separately while brewing, drank the black tea versions and drank their teas in a cup on a saucer! These are things you’ll still find very common in the state of West Bengal, even within the not-so-wealthy communities and neighborhoods. Bengalis love their “Liquor Cha” (what they call their black tea brewed with tea leaves rather than tea-dust) in a cup on a saucer and drink it the “proper way” in-line with tea-drinking etiquette. After the enactment of the “Tea Act” in India in early 1950’s, the Tea Board of India launched their promotion campaigns to publicize “Tea” in India. And because full-cream buffalo milk was the drink of choice in Northern regions of India, they advertised “tea made of milk and some spices” and called it “Cha or Chai“. And in South India, since coffee was popular in there, the Indian Tea Board had to promote yet another similar version of tea that used milk in the making and served in their iconic Madras-style steel tumbler and “Dabarah“! This was the little Tea story I knew of how tea came to India and traveled across.
Since I grew up in Northern India, I have never been a fan of or preferred black tea. I’ve always liked my cup of tea with a little milk and sugar to start my day. If I have to pick up two foods that I love the most while in Kolkata, it would have to be the road-side “Lebu Cha” and Momos (a type of Mongolian dumplings that is a popular street-food in Kolkata). While Momos, would have to wait for another post, I’ll talk about “Lebu Cha” here.
I first had a Lebu Cha in Kolkata on a scorching summer afternoon in 2006, during my brief stay over in the city. To know the rhythm of a city or to catch it’s vibes, you must go to the downtown and observe things around. I still remember…it was below the flyover, in Gariahat, the heart and shopping capital of South Kolkata. There is a bustling little median island there…the famous “ADDA-point” and hub for middle-class chit-chat get-together, frequented by the “Lebu Cha Wallahs“. Well technically, it is a prominent landmark and intersection of the city’s busiest roads — Gariahat road and the Rashbehari Avenue. However, I discovered a whole new world in that little area under the flyover……a world completely unaware and uncaught by the chaos nearby. Be it the loud bargains at the numerous garment and jewelry kiosks on the roadside, or the hundreds of people crossing the road together on foot, or the inter-city bus conductors hanging out of their buses to shout the names of the stops, or the honking of the yellow ambassador taxis, or the bells from the passing trams, or the loud street-side hawkers, or the men at little shops yelling out the deals of the day, or horns from the motor vehicles stuffing the roads, or yelling of the poor bicycle and rickshaw drivers to warn the one in front of a possible collision if they don’t clear the way or a screaming policeman trying to quieten a commotion. The little area under the Gariahat flyover is right in the middle of this mayhem and yet completely untouched by this madness. This little “island” is shaded (by the flyover) and has sort of iron-railings, stretching throughout it’s length and width, to provide for “seating” for anyone seeking respite from the hustle and bustle around. As I sat there quietly sipping my Lebu Cha, and trying to get a hold of what was going on, I realized a different life and a new world altogether.
A 70 year old bonding with somebody sitting next to him over a borrowed newspaper and the headlines of the day, two college girls on a gossip break while they wait for their buses, a passer-by smiling and greeting someone he knew and saw sitting, four children playing Carrom on a portable board with a bunch of onlookers around, and several segregated 2-player teams playing chess everywhere — each with spectators ranging from zero to a close cluster of 10! Yes you read it right…a game of chess in the middle of nowhere and sometimes with a stranger they met a minute back. I saw how they were completely engrossed in the game, while balancing the black and white checkered chessboard on the narrow railing they sat on and mediating the “Royal battle” on it. You could see people from all walks of life playing chess here — from chess champions to novice players, from college goers to retired senior citizens — there are people who’ve been frequenting this place since 15-20 years or more and have almost made it “like home“.
And there comes the wonder man, the “Lebu Cha Wallah“. Though you’d see them selling Lebu Cha almost in all prominent areas across Kolkata, you come across them the most in Gariahat…or should I say, you get to notice them more there. I saw a teenaged chai wallah, a middle-aged man as well as an old man — all selling Lebu Cha in their huge silver-colored teapot (called Kettly in colloquial Hindi/Bangla), with some lemon, ground spices and with a bunch of small disposable paper cups, or flimsy plastic cups or the traditional handle-less unpainted and unglazed teracotta cups called “Kulhar“. Many tea stalls sell Lebu Cha, but the most favorite are the vendors, the hawkers. Lebu Cha is unlike any other tea I’ve had all my life. It is very pleasant, comforting, subtle and refreshing, and has a medley of spicy-sweet-tangy-salty taste!
While I bought myself a Lebu Cha later on a day, I politely asked the chai wallah how he made it. As he poured my tea, he gave me a quick stern look as if to say “I am not giving you any clue!” (and as if I had asked a whodunit question!). On my assuring smile, he said “Ete cha er moshla acche” (meaning, it has the tea spices), and took the money and walked away tight lipped. I fell so much in love with Lebu Cha that I spent the next day looking for “that Masala” (spice) in the local stores and asking friends if they knew what the “Lebu Cha spice” was. Wasn’t long before I learned that there wasn’t anything available of the sort commercially. Most Chai Wallahs would generally use a secret pinch of something in their teas that creates the magic and renders a unique flavor to their teas, to make them popular and a quick favorite. A few days later, I went to the place in Gariahat again, and caught a young Lebu Cha wallah. As I was handed over my cup of delight I noticed some fragments of dry ginger root floating and I delightfully proclaimed “I know you’ve put ginger in my lebu cha. Please tell me what else you use for the flavor?” The kid said “Noon” (meaning salt) and ran away as if for his life! That was the last something I heard straight from a “lebu cha wallah’s” mouth. Some say they use ground black pepper for some heat, others say they also use Jaljeera powder (spices for a popular Indian summer drink).
I tried to make “Lebu Cha” at home several times and tried several combinations and ratios. I finally tasted success. Yes, I did and it was just like how I had it in Gariahat. Please follow the recipe closely to taste the unique, delightful tea!
For making Lebu Cha, you’d need:
- 500 ml of water
- 1/4 tsp regular (loose) Indian black tea dust — I used Lipton’s yellow label Orange Pekoe tea granules
- 3 tbsp regular sugar (or adjust per your taste)
- 0.5 tsp ground Ginger (powder)**
- 0.5 tsp powdered Black salt (Kala Namak)** — I grabbed some from the Indian store
- 1.5 tbsp fresh lemon juice**
**Lebu cha has a unique intense and intriguing taste. Amounts mentioned here are what I found matching closest to Kolkata’s lebu-cha. However, feel free to adjust the spices to suit your palate!
- Place a clean saucepan on stove-top over on medium heat and add 500 ml of water plus the sugar
- When you see bubbles form at the bottom of pan, add the tea granules and heat/boil just for a minute, or till the time you see the infusion turning into a lovely light caramel color. (Boiling any more would result in a darker bitter tea with an unpleasant after taste.)
- As soon as you see that it is the color, remove the saucepan and turn the stove off, to avoid overheating the tea.
- Strain/filter the tea into a container.
- Add ground ginger, black salt and lime juice. You will see the tea color change from caramel to deep yellow!
- Stir, divide in tea cups and serve immediately.