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Raise a cup to the Sulaimani

Birthed in the spice country of Kerala, the Sulaimani chai is a soothing, refreshing brew

Photo: Aysha Tanya
Photo: Aysha Tanya

This week, I turn to a tea that I enjoy every day but even more so when I am under the weather and tea assumes medicinal proportions. It’s as much a muse to winter as chai is to the monsoon. It’s a tea to have at any time of the day, but not to be missed after an indulgent greasy meal because it has the power to unclog the system. Like every other tea, this too has varied versions that can be found across the country. Perhaps its most telling quality is that it’s the only tea that I have seen coffee devotees enjoy unabashedly.

At its simplest, it’s a nimbu cha or lime tea (or lemon tea as it is called everywhere). Most Indian hill stations have it on their menu, as a steaming concoction of hot water, lime juice, honey/sugar and/or ginger juice with a tea bag to dip.

In Kolkata, it comes into its own as the famous lebu cha, with its tangy sourness further emphasized by the addition of every chaiwallah’s secret spice mix, of which black salt is a known ingredient. How it came to be is not known. I imagine that an enterprising puchka or jhaal muri maker accidentally sprinkled some of the spices into the tea and unwilling to throw away a kettle of tea, served it to surprised but eloquently satisfied customers. Perhaps, deciding he was on to something, he started what has become a cult classic in Kolkata.

The version of lime tea that I like best has a name that befits its exalted status—the Sulaimani. Its home is the Mappila Muslim community in Kerala’s Malabar region. It’s also a drink popular in Hyderabad’s Old City. The Sulaimani’s origins are unverified and vague and one story is that it’s descended from an Arabian beverage called the ghava, made with dates and black pepper.

There must be some truth to the Sulaimani’s antecedents being Arabic, what with the sea trade that existed between Arabs and the Malabaris. But its history is of little consequence because it needs no justification for its raison d’etre. It’s the most happy of marriages between two ingredients, black tea and lime. And because it was birthed in spice country, some cardamom and cinnamon are thrown into the mix. One of the most gorgeous sights is watching the colour of the tea transform from a dark red to a sun-kissed golden when the lime juice meets the tea.

The Sulaimani is simple enough to make at home.The recipe I use is from Aysha Tanya, who runs the delightful food website Malabar Tea Room. Add two cardamom pods and 1-inch cinnamon (crushed) to water that’s heating. Once the water comes to a boil, pour it over 1 tsp of black tea leaves. I use CTC or any store-bought tea because the steeping time is only a minute. Add 2 tsp lime juice, sugar (I use honey) and a pinch of saffron. Pour into chai glasses for a near authentic experience.


Karma Kettle offers a nice Lebu Cha blend which has natural extracts and flavouring. Do go with their recommendation to add a pinch of black salt.

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.

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