On a tea trail in Chennai

Heaven in a glass tumbler. This is how tea addicts would describe their cuppa. We’re talking about those who live on the humble tea kadai brew. The tea kadai is a sanctuary for men who take a break from work and life. Not just the hot beverage, some of them come for gossip; some for the cigarette and vadais; some just come to drown their sorrows in a steaming cup of tea. These ordinary-looking shops serve the most extraordinary tea. And so, we set out looking for Chennai’s oldest tea shops and their stories, and in the process, ended up drinking some of the best brews we’ve ever had.

Vidhya Tea Stall, Club House Road

USP: Lemon tea

“He’ll be here any minute,” says Shakuntala. Her husband P. Rajendran, who owns the tea shop, has gone to Zam Bazaar to do the daily shopping. She serves us lemon tea, their specialty, in the meantime. By the time Rajendran arrives on his cycle, we’re in love with the translucent-brown concoction of tea, sugar, and the juice of half a lemon.

This tea has held people from the nearby offices in its thrall for over 30 years. It can jolt you out of your daily monotony. Seated on a rickety plastic chair by a gigantic banyan tree, sipping on the tea, we realise that it’s the perfect way to take a break from the drudgeries of life. Rajendran, who hails from a village near Karaikudi, started out by selling tea from a pushcart on the same road.

Although he didn’t become rich, Rajendran has earned enough to educate his two daughters and son. His life has been confined to Club House Road. Now 61, Rajendran has no plans of retiring. “I want to sell tea for as long as I can,” he says.

Irani, Smith Road

USP: Special tea, dum tea

“Two SP.” “SP tea.” “Three SP parcel.” Elbowing our way through the crowded tea and juice shop, we order the same. We just have to try one ‘SP’ for ourselves. It’s passed on from the kitchen to the counter through a small window — peep in and you can see lines of empty tea glasses waiting to be filled by the ‘master’. The tea comes in a ceramic cup — it’s deep brown, with a crown of milk froth. Strong, with a tinge of sukku (dry ginger) and cardamom, it’s easy to understand why it’s so sought-after.

But the cashier T. Murali says that it’s the dum tea that is their specialty. “The decoction is left to bubble in a copper cauldron, so that the fragrance and flavour are retained,” he says. “It’s also the hottest tea you’ll find.” Irani has 13 branches across the city and is also known for its small samosas priced at Rs. 2 and bun-butter-jam. The chain is owned by the Iranis, a Parsi family that migrated from Iran.

The Smith Road branch is over 45 years old. It is among the most popular of their outlets too — after 4 p.m. till about sundown, it’s a chaotic blur of tea, tea, and more tea.

Afreen Juice and Tea Shop, Triplicane High Road

USP: ‘Cutting’ tea

Tea master Akhtar educates us on tea lingo as he sends a tumbling waterfall of milk from one mug to another. “A full cup is regular tea; half of it, is ‘ounce tea’; lesser than that, is what we call ‘cutting’ tea.” ‘Cutting’ tea is, in fact, just a mouthful. “It’s for those who like to grab a quick cup to quench their thirst,” he explains. “Then there’s the dum tea, in which I simmer the decoction with milk before adding the sugar. In regular tea, the decoction and milk are added separately to the cup.”

Afreen’s accompaniments are even better than its tea — it serves some of the best chicken puffs and mutton samosas in the city during Ramzan; the shop is located by the gates of the Big Mosque. Apart from these, there’s the gaja poori, a deep-fried, layered sweet that’s soaked in sugar syrup, and the crunchy, semi-sweet gajra, its staple.

Over 20 years old, what adds to the tea shop’s character is the genial Ameer Basha, who works there. With deep-brown wrinkled skin bearing a dirty white beard, his smiling eyes make us stay on for another cup, even though we are full to the gills.

Devi Thaeneer Viduthi, Dr. Besant Road

USP: Malai tea

If there’s one thing in Triplicane that’s more famous than its biriyani, it’s the tea. And Devi Thaeneer Viduthi serves a rather different version. The cramped shop, with its ill-kept kitchen and loud music, it is at first a put-off. But something about it makes us stay on — perhaps the fact that it’s been around for over 50 years?

S. Murugan, the tea master, is disinterested in conversation. But ask him to make us a cup of malai tea, and he gets busy.

He whips out a glass tumbler and flips a spoonful of sugar into it. The decoction comes next — he lifts the long cloth filter that heaves with tea dust at the bottom, holds it over the glass and pours in hot water to send a trickle of the golden-brown liquid into it.

Thick, pinkish milk, that’s been bubbling in an aluminium trough for over an hour, glints as he ladles in two generous portions into the glass. Murugan then ‘pulls’ the tea — a process that requires practice and a certain casual concentration that comes with years on the job. He pours it into a brass cup in one smooth motion — so smooth that the tea resembles an elastic slanting line.

But the next instant, it lands limp inside the glass, its moment of glory behind it. Now comes the final stage — Murugan scoops in cream from the milk into the tea and sprinkles sugar on the snowy cap. Malai tea is ready. And we almost swoon when we drink it — it’s that delicious.

Sree Raghavendra Sweets, Bakery and Snacks, Porur

USP: Lemon-mintpudina tea

It takes a long journey and lots of enquiring to find the place that sells perhaps the best tea in Chennai. The bakery looks like any other; but it’s the tea stall out front that draws the crowd. S. Paramasivan is pouring hot tea into three glasses when we ask him for a glass of it. He nods, and bends over his stove to make it.

Sugar, decoction, a squeeze of lemon juice, a few mint leaves and his magic touch — he mixes the lot with a spoon for almost half-a-minute. The tinkle of metal against glass rings in our ears as he hands us the tea. Hot, tangy, and sweet, with the organic flavour of mint leaves, the tea is phenomenal.

The soft-spoken Paramasivan, a native of Kovilpatti, was once a seller of betel leaves. The man’s tea has several fans. One of them says that Paramasivan offers several variations of lemon tea. “He will know exactly what variety he served you last and make something completely different,” he says.

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Printable version | Jun 17, 2021 10:34:15 PM |

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