After China, India is the largest producer of tea, yielding about 1,197 million kg per year. Of this, about 70 per cent is consumed by more than a billion Indian tea-drinkers. And each has a preference in the way the leaf is brewed — some like it milky, some without sugar, and a few like it black. 

A majority of east Indians, for example, like their tea strong and black, and the leaves grown on 7,71,487 acres of Assam’s slopes exude the necessary rich, full-bodied, malty flavour that immediately revives you from any lethargy. A favourite breakfast tea, it is grown in a climate that is most conducive for tea production — low altitude, ample rainfall, loamy soil, and proximity to a gushing river, in this case the Brahmaputra. Such is the punch in Assam tea that grandmothers’ secret recipes use  a pinch of the leaves to enhance tastes of Indian dishes. It is no wonder that Assam alone gives us over 500 million kg of tea a year. 

While the north easterners wouldn’t add anything to their black tea, except maybe a pinch of sugar, other parts of India may also add milk, and perhaps a little cardamom to mask its bitterness. Typically, Indian chai is about brewing milk, tea and sugar together; with cardamon for taste; ginger for the extra zing; holy basil (tulsi) for its medicinal properties; and when you throw clove, cinnamon and black pepper into the boil, voila!, you have just made for yourself the Indian masala chai! 

However, serve Darjeeling tea, from the namesake slopes at the foot of the Himalayas in West Bengal, and even the fussiest tea drinkers will prefer it undiluted. This is inherently a Chinese tea growing on Indian slopes whose notes, connoisseurs compare to Muscat wine, and describe as delicate and flowery. The soft gold liquid can be enjoyed without any milk or sugar, much like a tisane after a meal, as a dessert tea. 

When it gained commercial value, Darjeeling tea was sent to Tamil Nadu for experimental planting. Characteristics of the Nilgiri mountains matched those of Darjeeling and today it is a favourite in South India. In fact, 70 per cent of the region is dedicated to tea plantations — majority lies in Tamil Nadu, and the borders of Kerala and Karnataka — and with an approximate production of 110 million kg, Nilgiri tea is  roughly 10 per cent of India’s total tea production. Closer to the Arabian Sea, and grown amongst spices, the tea has come to exude a distinct characteristic of its own. The brew is fragrant, bright, and full-bodied with a creamy mouth and strong and bold, fruity notes — definitely stronger than Darjeeling’s produce. As it doesn’t cloud when cooled, you’re probably sipping on Nilgiri tea, in your flavoured iced tea, for its rich taste, and compatibility with fruit mixes. 

Drink like the locals

Tea stalls or tapris as they’re commonly known are the essence of Indian streets. It’s not unusual to find corporate executives take a break with a cup of chai (up to ₹10) and the fried snacks at such tapris. Every corner will have one, if not more. Some cities have tea-vendors cycling the roads in search of customers; they’re seldom disappointed. Come midnight, and though the roadside stalls shut shop, you’re likely to get your hot cup at railway stations. 

India Study Report says that last year, close to 990 million kg of tea was consumed. Perhaps we can deduce from this that India is, indeed, a nation of tea-addicts. 

Tea Types

Cutting Chai 

A typical term in Mumbai, it is a slang for the quantity of tea served. Literally, “cutting chai” translates to “half cup tea”. It is served in ribbed, 4-inch glass tumblers. The strong brew is mixed with heaps of sugar — not for those who prefer mild teas. 

Kullad Chai 

Kolkata’s chaiwala will pour a strong cup of Assam brew in a wide-mouth, clay cup. Here they use equal parts of water and milk, spiced with ginger and cardamon, and spoonfuls of sugar. The normal practice is to break the clay cup on the street when empty. 

Old Delhi-Style 

Tea will be served to you in a glass tumbler placed in a ceramic cup. The idea is that most share their tea with an accompanying friend; hence the cup and glass. Some even fathom this is so if one is in a hurry, he can cool his hot drink by pouring it into the cup and back into the glass; repeat until it reaches the desired temperature. 


Kashmiris sip this more during the winter to keep warm. Cinnamon, cardamom and cloves are boiled in water for about seven minutes, and then strained over fresh green tea leaves. Saffron that is dissolved in water separately is added to the strained, flavoured water, with sliced almond and a dash of honey or sugar. 

Sulaimani Chai 

Bengaluru has adopted this tea culture from the Middle East, as have parts of Hyderabad. It is black tea with lemon and sugar in the ratio of 1:2. Some substitute sugar with jaggery. Apart from being a pick-me-up, it is believed to be an antitoxin too. The city also serves Kachhi chai, which is tea and sugar added to boiling milk. Not using any water, this is really milky, and liked by merely a handful. 

Tea Houses 

Not ready to embrace tea like the locals? Perhaps these tea houses will please your senses…. 

Taj Mahal Tea House 

Starts at ₹150 for a cup of tea; open daily 7:30am-11:30pm; 36/A, Sanatan Pereira Bungalow, St John Baptist Rd, Bandra West, Mumbai 400050; tel: +91 22 2642 0330;

Dolly’s The Tea Shop 

Starts at ₹40 for a cup of tea; open daily 7:30am-10:30pm; Shop No. G-62, Ground Floor, 2, Gariahat Road South, Kolkata 700068; tel: +91 33 2423 6445  

Elma’s Bakery, Bar & Kitchen 

Starts at ₹150 for a pot of tea; open daily 7:30am-11:30pm; 31 Hauz Khas village, New Delhi 110016; tel: +91 11 3310 5386


Starts at ₹80 for a cup of tea; open daily 11am-11pm; 2, 17/1, Ali Asker Road, Shah Sultan Complex, Cunningham Road, Bengaluru 560052; tel: +91 80 4126 5258; 

Lloyds Tea House 

Starts at ₹70 for a cup of tea; open daily 11am-11pm; 179 Lloyds Road, Gopalapuram, Chennai 600086; tel: +91 44 4551 4231;