Tea time is an indulgent affair for Parsis. Come evening, a full tea service is laid out complete with snacks and bone china crockery
Once, during pre-pandemic times, I stopped to chat with a neighbour. Not one to let anyone leave empty-handed, she thrust some lemongrass picked from her garden into my hands, saying, “For your chai.” That was my first cup of lemongrass chai and I loved it.
Along the way, I learnt that lemongrass chai was the Parsi way. And who better to tell its story than Kurush Dalal, a food anthropologist and a Parsi to boot.
Right off the bat, he corrects me. “It’s not chai, it’s choi.”
Parsis, says Dalal, had no problem dealing with the British—and one of the things they imbibed from them was the British tea custom. Brewing tea in a pot, however, they felt “it was a bit plain, kind of bleh”. And, mint and lemongrass made their flavour-enhancing appearance.
“A good Parsi choi,” says Dalal, “must have mint and lemongrass.” Leeli chai with phudno, if you want to sound like someone in the know. And if you can get your hands on it, spearmint (“pippermint” in localese). If there are friends or family coming from Dahanu, which has a significant Parsi community, and where spearmint is grown, they are usually tasked with bringing some back, says Dalal.
And the tea of choice? Assam, leaf tea/ CTC/tea dust aka restaurant mix, depending on what is available or affordable.
I delight in hearing that teatime is not to be taken lightly if you are Parsi. I love the fact that it follows siesta hour, that a full tea service is laid out, and that the teapot (“bone china”) must be covered in a tea cosy. There is usually one accompaniment, made fresh, and preferably sweet—like a date and walnut cake, mawa cake, kumas (an Iranian precursor of the mawa cake), chaapat (a pancake), bhakra (the Parsi cookie), karkariya (“deep-fried banana fritters, our answer to banana bread”) or delightful-sounding popatjis, the dish that Dalal describes as the mother of all teatime snacks and the only Dutch legacy in Parsi food.
Popatji, he tells me, is a corruption of the Dutch poffertjes, and is made from batter fermented with a bit of toddy, fried in ghee and dunked in sweet syrup to which rose and cardamom have been added.
And yes, says Dalal, sometimes teatime is a proper English service with sandwiches and napkins (set out for decor, not to be used!). He also tells me that being invited to a Parsi home for tea is like being invited to Buckingham Palace.
Unsurprisingly then, wangling an invitation to a Parsi home for tea, where I can try the popatjis, has become part of my bucket list. Until then, I have Dalal’s recipe for Parsi leeli choi ne phudna wali choi to make at home.
The recipe makes two cups: 1.5 tsp tea, 10 mint leaves, 1 long lemongrass leaf, 5 spearmint leaves (optional). Add to the teapot, top with two-and-a-half cups of boiling water. Steep for 3-5 minutes with a tea cosy on. Pour into good bone china cups. Add a dash of milk and sugar. Stir (“clockwise with pinkie sticking out”).
Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry.