We Indians have a never-ending romantic relationship with chai. Nothing beats a cup of hot chai on a rainy afternoon or a wintery morning. Or those endless cups of chai that came with cramming for exams or before project deadlines during our student days. And there’s all the laughter and camaraderie that goes with heading out with your office colleagues during the evening for a cup of chai at your favourite tapri near the workplace.
However, endless as our romance with chai is, we still haven’t explored chai beyond the regular cup of masala chai, nor have we ever given thought to food pairing. Tea, in fact, is much like wine, says tea sommelier Radhika Batra. “It’s got these lingering notes and overtones, much like wine, and Indians today are slowly opening up to the idea of experimenting with their tea. Most people keep sipping tea without finding out whether it suits their palate.”
And, like with wine, the sheer variety of teas found in India gives scope for new experiences and countless culinary offerings. Radhika takes us through what India has to offer in terms of native teas and their flavours.
India is home to some of the world’s most sought-after teas
“This is one of the most prolific blends grown in India,” says Radhika. “It is robust in flavour and it goes very well with milk, like we Indians prefer it. And thanks to this robustness, you can pair Assam chai with any Indian snacks, be it samosas or bhel. You can go beyond it to try out new culinary combinations. I recently served a kokum tea with solkadi. We were able to show kokum, which normally sees very limited use, to be a beverage as beautiful as chai.”
This is the closest we have to what one would call gourmet tea. Dubbed as the ‘Champagne of Teas’, the Darjeeling, when brewed, has a light orange-honey colour with musky-sweet tasting notes similar to Muscat wine. “About 80% of Europe drinks Darjeeling,” says Radhika. “And the auction of the Darjeeling First Flush is one of the most sought-after events. This is smoother than Assam tea and works best with lighter meals like salads and sandwiches.”
Radhika, who frequently hosts tea tasting ceremonies, recently held a whole ceremony around tea-infused food. “One of the dishes the chefs crafted was a salad infused with pure Darjeeling green tea,” she says.
Darjeeling Earl Grey
Although Earl Grey blend is made with Chinese teas in an imitation of more expensive teas, the Darjeeling version is a stunning fusion, blended as it is with bergamot pieces – a fruit with citrusy accents which is grown in Italy. Earl Grey pairs well with dark chocolate and fruit tarts and it’s perfect for a late morning brunch.
“Darjeeling White is a hot seller these days,” claims Radhika. “Doctors favour this tea, recommending this to cut the risk of cancer,” she says. “It sells very well in Bangalore and Chennai.”
Niligiri is dark, intensely aromatic and the least robust among the three teas, compared to Darjeeling and Assam. “This is a very flavourful variety which must be had without milk,” says Radhika. “As for pairing it with food, it’s important to find a pairing that doesn’t overwhelms the tea or the food. Nilgiri is best paired with small bites like cheese and light hors d’oeuvres.”
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