“I grew up drinking chai,” Ruchi Shah smiles. It’s no surprise—the granddaughter of a tea warehouse owner from Kolkata India, you could even say that chai runs in her blood. Literally.
But if, two years ago, you told her that she would’ve started an exclusive, chai-focused experience entitled ‘Chai High Tea,’ she would’ve laughed in disbelief.
In fact, this speech pathologist ventured into the world of food blogging and Instagram by chance. Over a casual discussion with friends one day, her many mouthwatering recipes that filled her Facebook feed came up and her blog, The Tiffin Kitchen, was born.
It’s a relative ‘first-of-its-kind’ for this native Hoosier, especially in an environment where Indian food often still translates to naans served with a nondescript gravy and chai is understood in a sole context: the chai latte that she can’t seem to escape.
Alongside mother Manjari, she launched the blog in 2017. Ruchi even enrolled in photography lessons and pursued a culinary degree through the School of Natural Cooking. The result? Stints as a personal chef, making all sorts of things from vegetarian dumplings to nut milks for her clients.
Simultaneously, she began to expand her horizons, meeting with Salma Qaddourah of 317 Juicery in 2018 to create a pop-up they would playfully call ‘Chai High Tea.’
“They had a brick-and-mortar location, which was perfect for hosting this sort of history-meets-culture-meets-food event pop-up,” she explains.
Joining hands with fellow female entrepreneur Amber Lamkin of Blush and Blossom Events, the team got to work, hosting what would be the first of five pop-ups with chai as the star. But Ruchi is intent on making one thing clear: The pop-up features authentic Masala Chai, served as it would be in her own home, rather than a version more commonly found at a local coffee shop.
“We found that not a lot of people had really tasted Masala Chai as it should be had, you know? It was just something we had to do,” she says passionately.
With a lesson of the history of chai and the chance to make-your-own, individualized blend, the pop-up was a smash success, each one selling out faster than the one that came before it. And that got Ruchi thinking: It was time to make chai the star.
That thinking led to two extremely successful collaborations, despite the world coming to a seeming halt due to COVID-19. The first, a dairy-free ice cream titled ‘Chai Cookie’ with Circles Ice Cream and its owners, Wes DeBoy and Sarah Potts. More recently, a vegan butternut chai bread by popular Indianapolis baker Jordan Justice.
“Each collaboration is different. For example, for the ice cream, I made a very specific chai concentrate—we went back and forth with testers before finalizing the final blend. Whereas Jordan just really loved the concentrate as is. No matter what it is, I love the process of collaborating, of seeing someone else’s vision merge with your ideas to come up with something completely unique and inspired,” she shares.
Both products were runaway hits—leading Ruchi to partner with Wes and Sarah for another, dairy-free, Valentine’s Day special: Rose Chai and Pistachio Brittle.
“I just got to taste it this past weekend and am so, so excited to share it with customers,” she says.
And while the pandemic has been its own sort of struggle, it’s proved to be somewhat of a blessing in disguise for Ruchi, who is now taking time away from pop-ups to create chai-based products that consumers can buy via an order form on www.thetiffinkitchen.com.
“We have a Masala Chai concentrate, a chai simple syrup, and a caffeine-free Sapna Chai concentrate available, along with a free e-book called But First Chai that teaches customers how to use each of those products,” Ruchi says.
With a virtual Chai High Tea in the cards for Ruchi at the end of February, as well as a full-time job in health care, she has her hands more than full. But if there’s one thing she’ll never stop loving, she says it’s got to be the cup of chai she savors everyday.
“For me, chai is home,” she smiles.