Meet the Inspiration for Oprah’s New Tea

Muhammad Lila

Mumbai – It could be biggest thing since morning coffee.

Oprah Winfrey and Starbucks are spending millions to launch Oprah’s own brand of Indian-style chai tea. In a video she released to promote the brand, Oprah describes her first experience with aromatic , spiced Indian tea during a visit to India in 2012.

“I literally was sitting at the home of some people who had some really nice tea. And they said that’s masala chai, so that’s when I became a pursuant of good, strong chai.”

Parvati Hedge is the person who made the tea for Oprah. We tracked her down in a slum in Southern Mumbai, where she, her husband, and three daughters live in near squalor. To say they live in a one-bedroom home would be an understatement. The room is the home. One side has a small electric cooktop, and the barren floor doubles as a living space. The home is so small that if you stretched out your arms, you could practically touch the walls on either side. At night, Parvati and her daughters sleep crowded together on the floor, forcing her husband Rajesh, to sleep outside on the street because there isn’t space for him indoors. The neighborhood has a communal bathroom and kitchens.

Rajesh works 11-hours a day as a taxi driver, while Parvati cooks meals for wealthier Mumbai families.

Oprah visited the family in 2012 while shooting a TV special.

“It was such a big deal,” Parvati’s husband, Rajesh, explains.

“At the time, I didn’t even know who she was, or that such an important person was in my home.”

During the shoot, Parvati did what is customary in India: She served chai to her guest. It was that tea that, according to Oprah’s promotional video, set her on the path of finding the perfect blend.

Indian chai differs from regular tea in that it includes more spices which are boiled together with milk. Cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves are commonly used, while regional variations include other spices like nutmeg, allspice, even salt and pepper.

Despite the rapid growth in the availability of coffee around the world over the past decade, tea remains the world’s second most popular drink after water. Despite the inroads made by Starbucks and other coffee houses, India, by and large, remains a tea drinking nation.

Manjit Gill is one of India’s top chefs. In the predominantly Hindu country, his latest recipe book explores the spiritual significant behind certain ingredients. He maintains Indian tea is among the healthiest in the world, and stops his workday every afternoon to enjoy a cup.

“Tea is still made cup by cup,” he explains.

“You boil water, you put the tea leaves, cook it, I’s very very personalized drink…We don’t just make it. We cook it. Proper tea has to be cooked.”

For Parvati, it’s a matter of great pride to have served Oprah her first spiced Indian tea, even though she knows a single cup of Oprah’s own blend will likely be sold for more money than she makes in an entire day.

“If someone comes to our house and drinks tea, we’ll be very happy,” she says.

“Our house isn’t big, it’s small, but we make it from the heart.”