Chef Kiran Verma isn't convinced that Indian tea time came to the country with its British colonists.
"You all were rich, so you were drinking gin and tonic," she says, laughing. "We were the poor Indians who were slaving and having chai."
It's not clear if the British introduced afternoon tea to India or vice versa. But what is clear is that Indians love their tea. India is the largest producer, exporter and consumer of tea after China, growing and shipping roughly 20 percent of the world's tea.
In India, the word chai means tea, but here in the United States, it refers to a specific type of tea, usually black and redolent with cinnamon, cloves, ginger and cardamom. Thanks in large part to Starbucks, we've become accustomed to the "chai latte," but in India, this is the typical preparation -- only with a lot less of that unnecessary sugary syrup.
Every Saturday at 2 p.m., tea service at Kiran's Restaurant and Bar begins with a warm cup of chai tea with a splash of milk. As the meal progresses, diners will try several other types of tea, but, says Verma, the chai is the most traditional.
"We don't call it tea time," Verma explains. "We call it chai time. The women would finish work and get together and knit and drink chai. They'd do sewing and repair work and have tea. And gossip."
That's not exactly what I did on a recent visit to Kiran's for tea, but I did get the feel for a hybrid British/Indian high tea. The meal, about two hours long if you draw it out, is $35 per person and consists of three courses. There's a first course featuring chai with milk and samosas, a second course of finger sandwiches and bites and a third course of biscuits and desserts. Reading over any given menu, it may not sound like much. But I left my teatime full and happy. And ready for a nap.
The menu changes occasionally, but the first course will always include a samosa, a traditional Indian pastry filled with meat, vegetables, cheese or all three. Right now, the featured samosa is filled with wild mushrooms and feta cheese and served with fig chutney,
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Next, diners are served a variety of small dishes, each with an Indian flair thanks to unusual spices. Each delicate open-faced sandwich looks like it would be right at home on Victorian china during high tea in London--but beware. There's mint and coriander and cardamom lurking in the lovely canapes, and they're all the better for it.
When I partook of tea at Kiran's, I was treated to an English cucumber stuffed with salmon, pea salad on homemade brioche, mango chicken salad, a spinach-stuffed mushroom, egg salad and a spicy pickle with puff pastry chips. Each small bite was completely unique, yet each paired well with the slightly bitter Darjeeling tea.
The third course consisted of flaky cranberry and apricot scones served with clotted cream and jam and a mug of Earl Gray. By this point, I was completely full. I assumed the sweet scones were dessert, but to my surprise, the server brought out another plate dotted with assorted sweets. If you still have room after that, order another cup of Earl Gray, but ask for it with a splash of Grand Marnier.
Saturday tea at Kiran's is by reservation only, so call ahead and claim your seat. There's even a semi-private dining room for larger parties (like the mother/daughter tea I witnessed last Saturday), but it's just as enjoyable when you order tea for two.