Entering a foreign land such as india can be unnerving for many. We think they call it ‘culture shock’. Finding yourself in a country where nothing seems at all familiar is weird.
With this in mind, it’s the little things that transfer between cultures that keep you sane – people having banter in a shop, the nation’s obsession for cricket, watching a yawn spread across a group of people and oh yes. … Their love for tea.
Tea can be considered a hugely British pastime, but the culture has somewhat changed in recent generations seeing the rise of third wave coffee shops and the inevitable chain outlets perpetuating the understanding that we need our Monday morning coffee before we can even contemplate doing any work.
That’s not to say that our tea culture is dead. Far from it. More that our hot beverage market has diversified so broadly.
Nonetheless, the British attitude to tea is famous. A cup of tea is good in all situations as William Edwart Gladstone once wrote:
“If you are cold, tea will warm you; if you are hot, it will cool you; if you are depressed, it will cheer you; if you are excited, it will calm you.”
As tea lovers, we can only agree.
The English tradition is centred around blends, such as English breakfast or Earl Grey, but where are these delicate leaves sourced?
That’s right. The north-eastern parts of India being primarily Darjeeling and Assam.
So it makes sense then that indians know how to produce a lip smacking cuppa. They’ve been drinking it for centuries and we are pretty much certain that the methods of making it haven’t changed very much.
As most English people, we put our leaves in a pot with boiling hot water and allow them to steep. After we pour, we might add a dash of cold milk and sugar.
In India, it couldn’t be more different.
We had tasted what we thought was chai before leaving the UK – the sort that you might find in a chain coffee shop. This is usually called a “chai latte” or “chai tea latte” (which is pretty stupid since ‘chai’ means ‘tea’. It’s like saying ‘ATM machine’).
It tastes like crap and is made from steamed milk and instant tea powder in a massive mug. We arrived in India with the assumption that we wouldn’t like masala chai, but we were wrong.
Our first experience of masala chai was in our first hostel in Delhi (read our blog about the place here). We had both been very ill, were tired from the flight and needed some rest. The guy at reception suggested that we go and sleep and asked if we would like a cup of chai. We said ‘yes please’ and so he sent the boy out (every shop has a ‘boy’).
5 minutes later, there was a knock at the door and the 10-year-old stood clutching 2 polystyrene cups.
The tea was dark, had bits floating on top and was bloody hot. The first sip burnt our mouths and was very, very sweet, but what followed were flavours of Darjeeling, smacks of ginger and subtle notes of cardamom with a kick of black pepper.
We knew that our time in India was going to be alright. Needless to say, it calmed us and we slept like a dream on our concrete beds.
What you get in a chai shop
Upon venturing out, we visited our first chai stall. You know it’s a good one when you can barely squeeze in, but on seeing a foreigner, they seem to find a couple of plastic chairs from somewhere.
There is something about a chai shop that takes you away from the rest of India. Rather than people pushing in front of you in a queue, they are offering tea to you before them and the scene is generally really friendly. Sure you get the stares, but after a couple of minutes it subsides as they become more interested in their glass.
They are probably not used to seeing a lady drinking chai outside, let alone a white one!
In our former lives, we both worked as managers for large uk coffee chains and know the stress of a surprise visit from environmental health.
“Are our documents up to date? Machinery clean and in safe working order? Back of house spotless? Cleaning rota up to date? All ingredients ‘day dotted’? Hand washing procedures being correctly observed? “
In India, this is not a concern. The usual setup goes like this:
The chai wallah is not a millionaire. He makes a low income even by indian standards, so is not wearing particularly clean clothes. He uses equipment that looks mostly home-made – coals on a fire that heat a tin pot. The flame is controlled much of the time by a manual hand crank to increase the airflow. The ingredients are mashed in a pot that has probably been rarely cleaned, and when the tea is ready, it might be strained through a sieve, but often just a piece of hanky that looks like a relic.
If our chai is served in a small glass, which it usually is, we drink it, ignoring the fact that we can observe no hygienic way that the chai wallah could possibly clean glasses between customers. Sometimes, we have the delight of drinking from a disposable clay pot, which is a real treat.
We make it sound miserable, but on the contrary. It’s refreshing to see a world so opposite to ours and we have never been ill from a cup of tea.
With a warm feeling in our belly, saying bye to the people that we have met, we gladly pay out 10 rupees (of course this is more than the locals pay) and head out to face the rest of our day with a refreshed attitude.
Masala chai is as important to india as cricket.
You go in a shop to buy something. You’re negotiating the price. The sales man sits you down and asks if you like chai. As soon as you can say yes, his head barely even leaves the door to the shop and shouts at somebody. 5 minutes later, a glass of tea is in your hand – a glass of tea that is hotter than the sun. A glass. No handle.
Waking up on a sleeper train is not pleasant. Chances are, it was not the best nights sleep. But what is that I can hear “Garam chai. Chai. Chai. ” there is always a perfectly timed chai wallah on a train, carrying some disposable cups and a huge kettle of previously brewed tea. It makes that lack of sleep a distant memory.
You’re walking down some street in some city and see a crowd of people around a small stall. Intuition says that a chai wallah has just brewed a batch and it’s ready. Intuition also says that it must be good. Get in on the action.
Having been around india for a couple of months and a bit, we have never been to visit family without being offered chai, nor have we witnessed any self-respecting indian decline on the offer of tea.
It is a part of life. Ingrained in the Indian culture. Each family, each chai wallah has their own recipe and each region offers different tastes.
We are hooked and can only say this:
India. You’re doing it right!
Have you ever tasted a good chai? Do you have a recipe to share? Can you recommend any good places for us to drink chai?
All comments and suggestions are welcomed.
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~The vagabond beans~