“Quick Bites with Lavanya Narayanan” is a four-part series delving into the world of culinary female entrepreneurs in Indiana.
It’s monsoon season in Tirunelveli, a Southern district of the Tamil Nadu region in India. Rains drench the earth with a distinct fervor—the monsoon season is here, and in Raji Muthukrishnan’s quaint household, that only means one thing: chai.
A steaming cup of luscious, milky tea, steeped in the strong spices of clove, ginger, and cinnamon, appears, accompanied by a plate topped high with vegetable fritters—pakoras, as they’re known. It’s a comforting tale, one that sustains Muthukrishnan’s spirit as she reflects almost two decades later.
“Chai is a part of my everyday life, you see. I begin my day with it—I can’t remember any differently,” Muthukrishnan smiles. A biochemistry doctorate and clinical research scientist by profession, graduate studies brought Muthukrishnan to Indiana almost two decades ago. What would follow is a marriage, children, and years of science work; engaging, and yet, Muthukrishnan was restless.
“I kept thinking—what’s next? After having my two children, Charan and Oviya, I had the itch to make a change,” she remembers. Sitting alongside her classmates in a book club, Muthukrishnan was introduced to literature on business and entrepreneurship. Suddenly, it clicked.
“All of us would convene to read and often end up bemoaning the lack of a good, steaming cup of chai to accompany our afternoon study sessions. Sure, you had chai being produced in coffee houses—but it tasted like nothing we knew, nothing I had grown up with,” Muthukrishnan says.
Brought up near a private tea estate in India’s Southern region, Muthukrishnan had been privy to South India’s finest: chicory-coffee blends and mugs of chai laced with ginger and turmeric, healing and heart-warming. Fueled by her love of spice, Muthukrishnan began to be solicited as a chai maker: first, by friends, then in her neighborhood.
“The idea came to me out of nowhere, and it occurred to me that there was a huge gap in the market. No one was selling authentic chai!” she states. With the encouragement of her local community, she kicked off her small-scale production with the 2015 Whitestown Farmer’s Market. Unsurprisingly, the chai was a hit.
“I would wake up at 3 a.m., traveling to commercial kitchens to brew mass quantities of chai to sell by the cup. It was the best sort of chaos, exhausting and exhilarating, all at the same time,” Muthukrishnan says animatedly.
Aiming to transform her passion into a profession, a routine family trip to Brown County National Park gave her a company name. The family decided on “Aahaa Chai,” honoring Muthukrishnan’s Tamil roots, in which “aahaa!” is an expression of satisfaction or surprising contentment, often at the taste of a food or beverage.
Other ventures followed suit, with Aahaa Chai entering the Bloomington Farmer’s Market that winter and, the following summer, the Carmel Farmer’s Market. Selling and brewing only loose leaf teas in a few varieties, the success of the following year told Muthukrishnan one thing: It was time to expand.
“The owner of Bloomington’s Hopscotch Coffee found me during one of their Farmer’s Markets and fell in love with our chai—she wanted to carry it in her stores, and I couldn’t have been more thrilled,” Muthukrishnan recounts. Yet, there was one small hitch: coffeehouses couldn’t brew the chai from looseleaf to recreate Muthukrishnan’s signature blends. It was then, only three years old in the professional chai business, that Muthukrishnan pushed herself again, experimenting in her Castleton production facility to create concentrates to be used in the wholesale and retail market.
“It’s a new world, concentrates. The challenge there is to create a product that doesn’t use any shelf stabilizers or additives—the authentic, home experience,” she explains.
Testing and tasting relentlessly, Muthukrishnan’s Aahaa Chai has become a story of perseverance in the face of adversity. Weathering a myriad of curveballs and the more recent COVID-19 pandemic that has continued to take a toll on small businesses around the country, she credits her success to her loyal customer base, one that continues to encourage her as she works to expand her horizons further than ever before.
“We’ve begun working with distributors to sell our looseleaf blends outside of Indiana as well as locally. We’re hoping to enter stores like Carmel’s Market District and Fresh Thyme this year and, as always, want to educate our customer base on the art of chai,” Muthukrishnan says.
The product serves as a good entry point, per se, for those to whom Indian cuisine is still an anomaly of tikka masala and pillowy naan. Certain blends, such as Muthukrishnan’s Coconut Zing Chai, even evoke the flavors of a payasam, a South Indian rice pudding dessert.
With over ten looseleaf varieties and four concentrates available for purchase, the brand’s most popular still remains the Bold Masala Chai, Muthukrishnan’s original blend that celebrates the spices that she grew up with. And as we sit, sipping on some chai amidst a heavy Midwestern snowstorm, it’s easy to see why.
“For many people, chai means tea. For me, though? Chai is home,” Muthukrishnan smiles.
While Raji Muthukrishnan’s many blends can be enjoyed as a simple morning or afternoon beverage, mixing equal parts of concentrate with your choice of milk to create the perfect cup, her chai concentrates have also been used to create a variety of culinary concoctions. This chai-spiced waffle is a simple yet amazing way to kickstart your day, chai-style, so click away for the recipe!
Lavanya Narayanan is an Indianapolis-based journalist who’s always on the lookout for the next best bite. When she’s not out restaurant-hopping, she loves experimenting with friends in the kitchen and has a special affinity in her heart for Starbucks, Twizzlers, and Diet Coke.
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