Tracing the roots of chai

Strolling through the bustling night markets of Rajpath opposite India gate in New Delhi, calls of “chai, chai” are heard coming from men who wander the streets carrying fragrant steaming pots.

A chai wallah stirs a steaming pot and prepares to serve a customer.

A chai wallah stirs a steaming pot and prepares to serve a customer.

They are selling chai tea, a drink that is a fundamental part of life in India. Across the country, millions of people start their day, or night with a cup of chai, whether brewed at home or bought from one of the many chai wallahs. A ‘wallah’ is someone who performs a task or provides a service. In India, chai wallahs appear on almost every street corner, railway platform and bus stand.

A chai wallah takes a morning sip of his own brew.

A chai wallah has a quick taste of his brew.

Unlike the powdered chai lattes of the Western world, Indian chai tea is brewed with fresh ground spices. It is this spice mix or ‘masala’ that gives each cup of tea its unique flavour and fragrance.

The spicy flavour of the chai masala changes throughout the country. Says local Delhi tour guide, Shweta Singh,

“If you go to Southern parts of India the flavour of tea is different because they add some different ingredients to the masala like clove, whereas in Northern India, cardamom, cinnamon, almond and ginger are more popular.”

The chai wallahs take great pride in the making and selling of their tea, as their chai stand is often they and their family’s only source of livelihood. Many of them add a unique touch to the flavour sometimes using a sprinkle of instant coffee or a couple of peppercorns. Others have dramatic pouring routines to lure sleepy customers to their stand.

Originally brought to India by the British East India Company, a simple cup of tea has been transfused with the culture’s vibrant and imaginative touch. The hot, creamy drink welcomes new friends and facilitates conversation between old ones. Shweta says that whenever guests visit her home, chai is brewed and shared.

In one of Old Delhi's bazaars sits a jumbled stand of pots and pans belonging to one of the chai wallahs.

In one of Old Delhi’s bazaars sits a jumbled stand of pots and pans belonging to one of the chai wallahs.

Shweta also says chai has medicinal properties,

“Sometimes if people have cough or cold, it’s very helpful and at home sometimes we also use basil leaf inside the tea to cure our sore throat if we’ve got a cold.”

Below, listen to Shweta describe chai tea in India.

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