Tea is tea by any other name. Except when it’s chai. This tea version is specifically linked to the heady brew of spices, milk and tea leaves that was drunk in India for centuries before it reached Western shores.
Uppma Virdi was raised on this brew. In India, where every family had a box, cupboard or even a whole room dedicated to spices, she would awaken to the familiar sounds of chai being made in the kitchen. But in her household, spices were more than a delicious addition to hot milk and water.
Her grandfather is a natural medicine doctor who specialises in spices, and who once concocted his own chai blends in his dispensary. For years she listened closely as he spoke about the various spices and their healing properties. Then one day he stopped making his remedial chai blends.
That was when Uppma stepped in. After her family moved to Melbourne she began making her unique blends for friends and soon found herself sending packages to friends living abroad. On each package, Uppma cheekily wrote the words “chai walli” – the Indian name for a female chai maker and the moniker she had been bestowed. Little did she know it would be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Today Chai Walli is a boutique online store that not only supplies gorgeous chai blends but also serves Uppma’s mission to promote better health through the humble spices.
What is your personal relationship with chai?
It is my language. Through chai, I bring communities together and forge bonds with people whom I would have never met otherwise. As the national drink of India, chai represents our culture of giving and sharing.
Through Chai Walli, I am also helping people integrate spices into their diet which is so important. We get our nutrients from food and our strength from exercise but we also need something medicinal to help our digestive system.
Your blends are based on the principles of Ayurveda. Tell us more about that.
Ayurveda is a 5,000-year-old medical system of natural healing and its philosophy is grounded in the five elements of space, air, fire, water and earth. I integrate chai and Ayurveda by balancing the spice blends according to each one’s healing properties and strength. Each spice has its own unique purpose and remedial benefit for the mind, body and soul.
What are the staple spices in a chai blend?
Fennel and cardamom because these spices are suitable for any dosha*. Fennel is calming, cooling and uplifting. One whiff of fennel seeds will lift your spirits and leave you feeling nourished. Cardamom refreshes the mind and aids digestion. In North India, cinnamon and ginger are also staple spices. Cinnamon and ginger both provide relief from colds, congestion and coughs.
*In Ayurveda, dosha refers to three different energies believed to circulate in the body that constitutes an individual’s physical, mental and emotional make up.
What is needed to make a homemade chai blend aside from the spices?
A mortar and pestle. Spices need to be crushed so that their remedial properties can be extracted during a brew. Add black tea leaves for a day time brew and leave out the caffeine at night.
As spices are therapeutic, they need to be brewed for a minimum of three minutes to fully release their qualities. And if you want a sweetener, I recommend jaggery instead of white or brown sugar. Authentic jaggery, which is available on Chai Walli and in most good organic stores, is like spiced molasses with a really nutty flavour and is usually sourced from coconut palm and cane sugar. It also has medicinal properties and aids in digestion.
What warming spices do you use in your winter blend?
The four I mentioned above – fennel, cardamom, cinnamon and ginger. There is also star anise (anti-viral and good for staving off coughs and colds), cloves (natural pain reliever and alleviates sinus problems) and mace which is part of the nutmeg fruit (a relaxant and a tonic). Be careful with the mace though because it is very pungent and is also an aphrodisiac!
Now, the greatest honour one could give a perfectly made cup of chai would be to relish it from an exquisite teacup. woman with drive has put together a swoon-worthy selection.
Tiffany & Co’s Sea Urchin teacup and saucer in bone china feature a delightful pattern that is inspired by one of Neptune’s grand creations.
Missoni Home’s vibrant porcelain Protea set combines Italian craftsmanship with iconic design.
Raynaud’s orange Tresor set is crafted from limoges porcelain and refined with gold.
Wedgewood’s Harlequin Collection Turquoise Crocus set injects romance into the traditional English tea time.
Crafted from fine bone china, Roberto Cavalli’s Palazzo Pitti Collection features an ornate blue Renaissance style pattern and leopard print detail.
What is your favourite chai blend? Tell us in the comments section below.
(Main image credit: Chai Walli)
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