Saturday, February 27, 2016

The HinduPhoto: Thulasi Kakkat
The HinduPhoto: Thulasi Kakkat
The HinduPhoto: Thulasi Kakkat

Nothing defines a long, train journey like a nice, hot cup of tea. We take a look at how the brew changes character as the locomotive chugs through the country’s length and breadth

Indian trains have always offered unforgettable tea experiences to savour. Think of the kullad tea served in mud-baked cups, fresh from the potter’s wheel. Thickened with sweet milk and blended with strong tea dust, it’s a delight that brings an exciting rush right from the first sip. Most stations in Central and North India are known for this style of tea. Long halts at stations mean an inevitable beeline for a steaming cup of freshly brewed tea. Is there any sophistication in this tea? No, not at all, but its cloying sweetness and milky thickness encapsulate an emotional wholesomeness that makes the journey special. Think back on pre-smartphone days, before e-catering became the norm, and trains ran happily late. Then, conversations over tea were the best way to push away tedium.

Another nostalgic feature related to tea and train journeys is the vignette of the tea boy carrying his shiny aluminium kettle and hollering, “Chai, garam chai” in his cracked voice. If you didn’t have change, that was ok. He would hand you a hot cup of tea anyway, then come back later to settle the bill. Tea was a catalyst in every train journey, the most meaningful “time pass.” A relaxing way to enjoy chugging though the smells, sounds and sights of small towns and villages.

But chai in India is not always a leisurely pastime. Don’t forget the frenzied thrust of cutting chai, a shot of thick milky tea, served at Mumbai Central. It’s an excuse to pause and refuel, to take an all’s-well-with-the world quaff, before swinging back into action. It’s also called fuel chai, and rightly so.

Head down towards Southern Railways, and you’ll notice that the tea experience is akin to drinking coffee. Frothy metre-long chai is poured from an impressive height, yet it somehow always finds its flimsy paper cup receptacle bang on. Have it with crisp vadas and oily bondas. Because this ‘chaya’ — strong and flavourful — pairs best with food. If you look carefully, you’ll also find a spicy tea, sulaimani, a black Malabar tea scented with cardamom and sweetened with jaggery.

Adding to these is now the experience of pre-ordering ‘meri wali chai’ (my kind of tea), which will be served at your seat. Availing the e-catering services offered by Indian Railways (IRCTC), Chaayos, a Gurgaon-based company, will now serve 25 varieties of customised tea to passengers. The service in its initial phase has been flagged off in the Delhi-Mumbai sector, before it expands to other tracks.

Company founder Nitin Saluja found that he yearned for his signature cup of tea when he travelled to India from America. When he returned, he began Chaayos in 2012, in an attempt to offer customers a range of tea options, including the classics. Saluja says it’s “about the right mix of leaf and water,” as any discerning sipper will agree.

Bespoke tea is a treat. This service not only allows you to select your kind of tea, but also ensures it is served in disposable kettles, hot and clean. These keep the tea hot for over an hour, and hold 400 ml of tea. “It’s the concept of home-brewed tea, freshly made to order,” says Raghav Verma, co-founder of the company. Some of the more popular variants will be on offer right away, like the adrak chai (ginger tea), tulsi chai (basil tea), and fresh-fruit iced tea.

According to connoisseurs, the tea bag, for all its functionality and pragmatism, takes away from the style and ceremony of having tea. This facility may just bring that back, and that too, when you are travelling by train. Imagine the luxury of savouring a cup of delicate Darjeeling as you travel. Happy? Well, tea aficionados are certainly pleased. But that doesn’t stop them from coming up with more ambitious suggestions. To begin with, a tea tray service with the works: tea cosy, strainer and a milk jug. After all, little luxuries can completely transform journeys.

The New Menu

l Honey, ginger, lemon tea

l Spice tea with cloves and fennel

l Chilli-flavoured tea

l The tea is served in a 400-ml disposable kettle, and is priced at Rs.70


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