The comforting scent of cinnamon, the sweetness of fennel seeds, the tang of ginger and the heady aroma of cloves. For Uppma Virdi, these scents and flavours transport her back to her grandfather’s medical clinic in Punjab, where as a young girl she would watch as he dried and hand-blended rich, complex chai.
Growing up in an Indian family, chai was an essential part of the fabric of everyday life. The day began with Uppma’s mother at the stove, serving the family steaming cups of the warming brew and carrying on a centuries-old tradition of chai-making. Wherever Uppma travelled in the years since, her love of chai followed. Her studies in law earned her a scholarship to study in the Austrian town of Graz, where her well known passion for chai soon earned her the nickname ‘Chai Walli’ – an Indian term meaning ‘a female chai maker’.
Returning to Melbourne, her search for authentically made chai went unrewarded, so she started to make her own, selling hot cups of her spicy, smooth blend to businesses across Australia. She quickly attracted loyal followers, and her range expanded to include a black chai, her signature caffeine-free blend and jaggery – an unrefined sugarcane popular in India, which adds a subtle malty sweetness to the drink. These days, she has a roaring online store and appears at selected trade events throughout the country, as well as continuing to wholesale.
‘Chai requires a delicate balance of sweet and pungent, fresh and earthy, and Uppma has spent years refining the perfect blend.‘
Deceptively simple, the combination of fragrant spices, tea, water and milk is more than the sum of its parts. Chai requires a delicate balance of sweet, warming, pungent, fresh and earthy – a balance Uppma carefully refines with the change of each season. Her artisanal mixes re ect this care, paying respect to the Ayurvedic ideal of tridosha – the relationship between air, space, fire, water and earth.
The 11 spices of the caffine-free blend are adjusted seasonally to provide more warmth during the winter months and coolness during the summer. The black chai combines spices with Indian assam tea to create an authentic, full-bodied brew. According to Uppma, many of the spices in the Chai Walli teas are selected for their health properties, such as ajwain, a seed believed to have anti-viral, antiseptic and antifungal benefits.
In addition to her respect for high-quality ingredients, Uppma has a reverence for the ceremonial process of chai-making. There’s a sacred quality to the ritual of brewing and sharing tea, keeping important cultural traditions alive, and savouring the sensory experience of each sip. Tea forms both part of the everyday routine and a break from our activities, an important punctuation that reminds us to stop and simply enjoy.
Chai is a sensual experience, where an artful blend of tea and spices is not only delicious, but healing and comforting to the soul. In Chai Walli, Uppma has brought the perfect Indian chai blend to Australian shores, carrying with it a long chain of history, culture and ritual.