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The Taste of India Visits Melbourne

When I was initially asked by India Tourism to present at Taste of Melbourne 2015, I must admit I really didn’t know what I was letting myself in for. I had never visited a Taste event and wasn’t completely sure how it worked. The directive I was given, was to introduce the visiting public to an Indian tea experience…… and let’s try and make it fun!

This was back in June and so I had a little time to think about the concept of Indian tea and fun. As I started to research the event, it gave me more of a feel for the general attendee of a Taste event. I also knew I was going to be working with Neha Sin, an Australian MasterChef contestant in 2013, and now owner of Neha’s Indian Inspired. Neha explains her post MasterChef business as an Indian inspired business which “matches amazing Indian flavours with fabulous Aussie ingredients to make palates dance”. Our pavilion was supported by India Tourism, Air India and Beacon Holidays, with the obvious theme “Tastes of India”.

There was nothing for it, I realized I could rabbit on about Darjeeling being the “Champagne of Tea” or the full bodied malty flavours of Assam’s, or the beauty of Nilgiri or Sikkim, but was this the audience for this? I think not! So I look at a tea synonymous with India, trendy globally, and we could have some fun with… Masala Chai. The spiced milky sweet Indian street tea, perfect. What could represent the taste of India more than street masala chai, when talking about Indian tea? Now I just have to incorporate – Fun!

As I arrived at Albert Park, Melbourne, I must admit I was just a little nervous about the concept that I was about to present, especially knowing that I probably would be the only white, Lancashire twanged, non-Indian working in the “Taste of India” pavilion, no pressure. Thursday morning came round and everyone was very busy arranging the pavilion as we awaited the arrival of Ms. Manika Jain, Consul General of India in Melbourne. She arrived, cut the red ribbon and “Taste of India” was off and running. Soon we had people arriving, and the test of my concept was about to be a success or a fail.

The “Chai Table”- the concept was for ten people at a time, to sit around a great large wooden table. Each person seated at the table, had in front of them a bowl, a soup spoon, an information sheet and a takeaway container. Along the centre of the table were large lolly jars filled with Indian teas and a vast array of spices. We certainly had the traditional spices like cinnamon quills, cardamom pods, and dried ginger root but there were others like coriander seed, chilli, cloves, black pepper corns, and star anise, not so traditional. Stood proud at the centre of these colourful and interesting jars with their contents, was my trusty Camelia Sinesis plant.

The theory was to introduce each set of ten people sat around the table, firstly to tea. The fact that it’s not a bag but it grows, and this is what it looks like (the poor plant took a battering for the sake of tea, over the next four days). That different teas can be created from this one plant, and of course Indian black teas but that many drinks we refer to as tea are actually not, they are tisane (fruit or herbal infusions).

Then when everyone was comfortable and knowledgeable about tea, I then introduced the spice gang. Next we talked about “chai” or “chai latte” as we call it here in Australia, when we are really referring to masala chai – spiced tea. Then it was time for the individual blending of unique masala chai blends to be created by each one of them. Once they had all finished, they popped their own unique blend into their little container and were able to take it home.

In reality, I couldn’t have wished for it to go better, watching grown-ups behaving like children and having so much fun, and 5 year olds acting like little adults, beautiful. And as one group was finishing the next group were hovering, ready to grab one of the ten chairs, as the previous masala chai blenders left clutching their unique blend in hand.

But I hear you say, he hasn’t explained how to cook the masala chai when they get home. During each 5 hour session, while Taste was open to the public and in between Neha’s cookery classes, I presented a “How to cook traditional street masala chai”. This again was great fun, as not only did the blenders get to understand what to do with their blend, but we had members of Melbourne’s Indian community savouring a taste of home, people who’d never tasted a true masala chai experiencing it for the first time, and heaps of chai lovers. The call of the chai wallah “Chai, Chai, Chai” was certainly heard around the Taste of India pavilion.

So as we approached closing on Sunday afternoon I must admit, with the comments I received from so many, I think the “18ThirtyFour Chai Table” ticked all the boxes. Fun- for sure, watching adults revisit the play table at infant school or kindergarten, was definitely fun. An Indian tea experience most definitely, everyone walked away from that table with Indian teas in hand, an understanding of what real Indian masala chai is and how to make it. There were even discussions about CTC, what it means and were to buy Indian Assam CTC teas for home. There was also a good number of business people looking for inspiration and gaining that understanding of what a real masala chai is like, as oppose to sugar based syrups or sweetened instant powders. Who knows it could even help change what we receive as a chai in the future. A masala chai made with real Indian leaf tea, an Assam CTC full of flavour and power to create a perfect street chai would be a thrill to drink at our local café or teahouse.

Many people say “tea is just tea” but this exercise proved that Indian tea can be fun, exciting and very, very tasty!

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