The chai-wallah (tea seller) is the most ubiquitous sight in India. You will find one in any part of the country. And the chai you get at the chai-wallah’s is like nothing you can conjure up at home. It could be the fact that they boil their chai much more than we do at home or the dust and the dirt combine to give the chai its taste. At any rate a potion of this strong cuppa can drive away the sleep and put a bounce back in the step.
Chai-wallah chai is usually made with anything between a 50-50 to a 25-75 proportion of milk to water. They use strong tea powder that is locally bought from the tea wholesaler. Most of them have their own individual blend of masalas that they put in their brew. These differ from ginger to cardamom and clove. Some even add tulsi (holy Basil) leaves. These masalas are ground fresh or stored in bottles and added when the tea reaches a boil.
The tea is served in small thick glasses with biscuits, rusk or khari. In bigger shops they may even have samosas, pakodas and pau. Other than the regional differences in chai, there is also chai that can be distinguished by the communities they belong to. So you have the Parsi tea which is eaten with brun-maska. Then you have Irani chai which is served in beautiful gold tipped glasses on dainty saucers. This is black tea with a dash of lemon straight from the samovar. Iranian tea of this kind is available in Mumbai and is served with a biscuit or a piece of cake. There is another Iranian tea which is popular in Andhra Pradesh. This is a water less tea or pani-kum-chai as it is called by the locals. A tea made purely out of milk and spiced with cardamom, this is a rich tea that is very popular, though quite unpalatable to a lactose intolerant stomach such as mine. Then you have cutting chai which is half a glass of tea and the one meter chai which is chai that is frothed by pouring it into the glass from a pot held a meter high.
I have had road side chai at a variety of places…I have had South Indian sea side chai, and Kumaon mountain tea and Mumbai city tea and Marathwada goats milk tea. They all tasted different, but the thing they had in common was the warm, smiling chai wallah who doled out the glasses of tea with his own inimitable brand of wit blended with wisdom.