What is one to say about chai — the romance of chai and the subcontinent go way back. The English may have invented tea time but desis of the world embraced it with such warmth that it’s now synonymous with the subcontinent. Many a match made in heaven is affirmed over a cup of chai, best friends are made over a cup of chai, office breaks (like the ones we enjoyed at the Haroon House of the ’90s) turn to lasting friendships over a cup of chai. Needless to say that it is next to impossible to capture and express the relationship of chai with people of the subcontinent. Simply put, it is a beautiful, lasting and passionate relationship like none other.
It may seem untrue but, at the dawn of the 20th century, the people of the subcontinent were mostly unaware of the art of tea-making, let alone drinking a cup of tea. But that changed, and now we, the subcontinentals, know tea better, almost, than the people who introduced it to us.
I was recently in London and thought this time I’d have tea at the Buckingham Palace Cafe. Yes, the very Buckingham Palace the Queen calls her home. I, of course, didn’t have formal tea there (that I’ve done in my earlier trips to London at other facilities) since the Palace Cafe does not offer a tea menu, but I did order tea, sandwiches, scones and pastry for my afternoon tea.
The magic of tea time goes beyond tea and its accompaniments
Sitting in the beautifully picturesque cafe, with the prettiest chairs and tables, and overlooking the lush, thick, endless gardens of the Palace, I couldn’t help but think what a wonderful time of the evening it was, and how an entire industry is based around it. From exquisite tea sets to pastry chefs and tea companies to tea menus, this has to be the most favoured time of the day for many.
However, despite its name and the expensive and uppity industry, high tea (also known as afternoon tea) actually originated with the middle and lower social classes.
Dinner was served at midday in the 1800s but, in practice, the working classes didn’t have the benefit of an afternoon lunch break, so they took tea right after work with heavier plates — like pies, cakes, meats, breads and cheeses — to satiate their hunger, and sustain until supper time later in the night. This tradition and practice travelled to the upper classes, and soon tea became a fashionable beverage for all. The upper crust ladies spent English afternoons sipping tea with cakes and biscuits as a preference to sugary wines that they were earlier used to having. Tea drinking also gave them an opportunity to show off their fine china. Hence teatime was invented.
Anyways, I digress. Tea at the Palace was absolutely delightful, but not as delightful as it was at the Ciragan Palace in Istanbul. With its superb location right by the Bosphorus and its wide terrace, the Gazebo Lounge offers the most classic and renowned afternoon tea in the city or, for that matter, around the world.
It’s called the Istanbul classic, and is served everyday on a special three-tier stand, featuring classic finger sandwiches, scones with clotted cream and jams, a wide variety of pastries, along with freshly brewed coffee, tea options, best enjoyed while taking in the stunning view.
During this trip I realised that an afternoon tea and its accompaniments, are best enjoyed amongst glorious nature — may it be endless green gardens with running lakes, pretty ponds, or our own garden, or better still by the magnificent blue Bosphorus or a home water fountain.
The popularity of tea drinking in the subcontinent has had a very positive impact on society. Teatime is often considered a relationship builder and one’s personal relationship with chai is as sacred as a relationship can get. While preparing to write this article I decided to enjoy several afternoon teatimes at ritzy establishments, but please make note that I most enjoyed my teatimes late at night in my hotel room.
Yes, after a long day spent discovering new cities, what I most love is my sacred teatime in the night when my little travel tea pack (with my favourite teabag and other tea accompaniments) conjures my personal chai, and I sip it lovingly as I catch up on my late night reading.
‘Chai tau apnay haath ka jadoo hai [tea is in the magic of one’s own hand],’ and that is what makes it best. Nothing compares to the cup of tea we make for ourselves to be enjoyed at our leisure. That is the magic of chai.
The writer is a freelance Journalist, and author of Feast With A Taste Of Amir Khusro
Published in Dawn, EOS, July 14th, 2019