A Sip in Time: India's Finest Teas and Teatime Treats

Chef, author and television show host Pallavi Nigam Sahay talks about her passion for food, the Indian kitchen and her journey across the country to learn about the art and science of tea processing

Chef and tea connoisseur Pallavi Nigam Sahay pens book on Indian tea and teatime treats

Chef, author and television show host Pallavi Nigam Sahay completed her culinary education from International School of Italian Cuisine, Italy. But it is Indian food and the Indian kitchen which remain her top priority. Her first book, The Bhojpuri Kitchen brought to light one of the lesser known cuisines of India.

A collection of over 60 recipes to pair with Indian teas

Her second book A Sip in Time is an intersting collection of 'India's finest teas and teatime treats'. It started with her research for recipes of tea time snacks that are enjoyed in different parts of India, which prompted her to join a tea sommelier course in Guwahat, Assam, to learn all about tea, the many varieties, the processing, etc.. According to her, it gave her an interesting insight into the world of tea. "I learned why sweet chai is paired best with salty snacks and black tea is fond of sublime sweet snacks," she said. She then embarked on a tour across the country to understand the art and science of the process of making tea. The book is a collection a stories, anecdotes and recipes that she gathered during her travels.

How did you get attracted to the world of food?

My mother is an avid and excellent cook. So was my grandfather. Hence, chai time discussions at home revolved mostly around food. They would often discuss recipes, menus, or what they were going to cook that particular day for lunch or dinner. I grew up listening to them passionately analysing the food they had cooked or have eaten somewhere.

In fact, if my mother liked a particular dish, be it at a party or someone’s house, she would never leave without asking for the recipe. So, I think a lot of it sunk in me and I had developed an interest in trying my hands in the kitchen very early.

However, opportunities were few as my mother shouldered the task of cooking at home.

But when I entered college and lived in a hostel, I would often cook for my friends and myself.

It started as a hobby. But gradually I realised that my life revolves around food. My diary in which I made food schedules for the week, the recipe books, the magazines and the innumerable pieces of paper on which I had written down recipes I procured from other people became the mainstay of my life.  Hence I embraced what I had always loved and will continue loving it throughout my life.   

Were you already a chef when you went to the International School of Italian Cuisine? What was the experience there like?

I joined the School with the intention to be more efficient in cooking and eating. To explore the other side of cooking as opposed to home cooking - the restaurant. But like Santiago from Alchemist, who as soon as reaches his destination realizes that the treasure was buried right where he had started his journey, after finishing School, I realized the best cooking is what my mom cooks for us, the daily meals we have at home.

However, meeting people from various countries and cultures at the International School of Italian Cuisine, gave me a wider insight into the importance of food in people's lives. After school, we would sit down and talk about food, the pleasures, the comfort and the excitement it brought in everyone's life. This knowledge sharing was a valuable lesson for me.    

Which is your culinary field of choice?

Indian, Baking, Middle Eastern. In that order.  

Your first book was about Bhojpuri food. What prompted you to explore this relatively lesser known cuisine of India?

I am from Bhopal [Madhya Pradesh] and I am married into a family from Bihar. Learning about Bihari cuisine and cooking it too was one of the ways to bond with my new family. Besides, I was fascinated with what my mother-in-law cooked for us, or what we ate when we visited our relatives. And I followed in my mother’s footsteps, pleading for the recipe of the dish that I had enjoyed. So my diary was full of recipes from Bihar.  The book is a formal presentation of the compiled recipes.

You have been on television shows, hosting shows, etc., writing recipes for national publications - what prompted you to take the tea sommelier course?

Pursuing the tea sommelier course was the only way to know tea better, to become familiar with the nuances of making and drinking tea. It did help me a great deal in understanding the flavours of tea, Hence, I could pair the tea better with food recipes. In the initial stages, I wanted to write the food recipes that would complement the chai. So I planned to write it sitting at my desk. But as I started working on the recipes, I realised I needed to know the tea better, hence I joined the tea sommelier course.

Your second book is about tea and teatime snacks enjoyed throughout India. This must have entailed a lot of travel?

During the tea sommelier course I came to know about various indigenous tea cultures of India, some still practised by ethnic minorities dwelling in remote regions of north-eastern India.

I also came to know about how tea was discovered in India and about the first ever tea made in India, Phalap. Did you know that it is still made the same way in upper Assam by an ethnic minority known as Singpho.

When one discovers such interesting facts about the subject that they are working on obviously you don't return home without witnessing them yourself. Hence I extended my travel and visited those areas and the ethnic minorities to know more about their traditional ways, especially how they handcraft their teas. Visiting them helped me to understand the subject which in turn helped me to write the book.  


The book is a wonderful collection of recipes. How did you decide on which recipes to include and which ones to leave out? Have you tested all the recipes, and modified them if required?

I only included recipes which have been and are part of my life. The recipes in this book have been part of my family's chai hour for a long time and hence have stood the test of time. That's also the reason why each one of them comes with their own story.

More books on the anvil?

I am currently working on a 'cookbook' which can be part of people's daily life.