The Chai Wallah's Tale

In India’s oldest city we meet a third generation chai wallah and find out more about the magic of chai.

  Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India
  9 min read

Cursing ourselves for leaving late we meet with the usual morning rush of slow moving pilgrims, volatile cows, eager stray dogs and horn honking motorbikes as we flit though the city’s grubby, maze-like, passages. Varanasi, in Northern India, is the oldest and holiest of all Indian cities, drawing Hindu pilgrims in droves to bathe in the holy Ganges River or cremate their departed loved ones. Words alone fail to capture the essence of this complex place, which is in equal measure beguiling, disgusting, photogenic and frustrating. It seems fitting then, that Varanasi is where we will learn more about the magic elixir that is chai. A drink over which wars have been fought and countries conquered.

A ceremony being performed at sunrise by the Ganges.
A ceremony being performed at sunrise by the Ganges.
The ramshackle and maze-like streets of Varanasi.
The ramshackle and maze-like streets of Varanasi.

Many people assume that chai and the chai stall is a longstanding tradition in India but it’s actually a relatively new phenomenon in the country’s long history. Although native tea plants grew wild in India, used primarily for cooking, it was during British rule in the 19th Century that commercial tea cultivation began, as part of a bid to break China’s monopoly of the industry. Not until well into the 20th Century, when producers sought to capture the Indian domestic market because of falling sales in Britain, did tea rise to become the drink of the masses in India.

Suresh, a third generation chai wallah, at his stall in Varanasi.
Suresh, a third generation chai wallah, at his stall in Varanasi.

Suresh is a third generation chai wallah (tea seller) whose stall is tucked down a narrow cobbled lane off the bustling Kalika Gali; a shop-filled street that leads pilgrims and tourists to the city’s famous Shri Kashi Vishwanath Temple. We turn into the lane and a familiar sight comes into view; rusty countertop, rickety wooden benches and a row of kettles lined up along the wall. Above us a tarp serves as a makeshift rooftop in case of rain. On the peeling blue wall behind Suresh’s work counter is a Coca-Cola poster, and tea making utensils hang from nails for ease of access. The countertop, a repurposed metal cabinet, houses a muddle of tin containers, saucepans, spice jars and tea glasses, all the essentials for the alchemy of making chai. The cabinet doors are pasted with colourful images of Hindu deities and this is where he stashes his chai making kit when he closes up at night, attaching a couple of flimsy padlocks to keep thieves at bay.

Tools of the chai wallah's trade: kettles, pans and a tea strainer.
Tools of the chai wallah's trade: kettles, pans and a tea strainer.

Suresh waves us over and we tuck in close to the stall to avoid the incessant bike traffic that rushes past, along with the odd cow. Bells ring, music plays, people shout. Tea stalls in India aren’t the most relaxing of places, they’re social spaces, where customers come to talk about everything and nothing, to set the world to rights over a cup of chai.

Chai is sometimes served in petite terracotta cups, which you smash after drinking.
Chai is sometimes served in petite terracotta cups, which you smash after drinking.

Suresh is the friendly face who greets customers everyday, listening to their conversations and serving up their fix of chai. The line up of patrons at Suresh’s stall this morning is a mix of men from different walks of life, clutching their glasses of chai and chattering away to one another. During our journey through India it’s become apparent that the chai stall is very much a male domain, both chai wallah and customer are usually male, while chai wallis (female tea sellers) are rare, and female customers few and far between.

In India chai is often made with buffalo milk, rather than cow's milk.
In India chai is often made with buffalo milk, rather than cow's milk.

We keep returning to this dingy looking tea stall because Suresh is a welcoming character and happy to indulge our request for tea without sugar. Indians like their tea toothachingly sweet, but Suresh forgives our fussiness, greeting us with a broad smile each morning. Today he wants to show us how he makes a rich masala chai, made with milk only (no water) rather than the regular chai he makes. With a mala strewn around his neck and a red tilaka stain on his forehead Suresh sets to work.

Masala chai ingredients ready to be simmered in the pan.
Masala chai ingredients ready to be simmered in the pan.
Cardamom being ground to add to the chai mixture.
Cardamom being ground to add to the chai mixture.
In India tea is served in small glasses or terracotta cups.
In India tea is served in small glasses or terracotta cups.

First he removes a piece of newspaper, a makeshift lid, from one of the pans to reveal fresh buffalo milk. Pushing aside the custardy film of skin that’s formed on the top, he pours the milk into a pot and places it directly on top of a gas canister to heat: safe and sanitary conditions are not India’s strong point. Fiddling amongst the aluminium tins that sit atop the decrepit counter he finds the ones he wants; tea and sugar, from which he heaps a few healthy teaspoons into the milk. Next he grabs a small, leaf-shaped, granite pestle and mortar to grind up some green cardamom and throws it into the pot.

The importance of chai and the chai stall in India cannot be understated; it transcends class divides, is almost universally popular and chai wallahs can be found on nearly every street, train or bus station in the country. At around 5 – 10 Rupees (7 – 15 cents) a cup, it’s also relatively cheap, making it accessible to even the poorest. India’s three main tea growing regions and varieties are, Assam, Darjeeling and Nilgiri (grown in Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu), it’s the world’s second largest producer of tea and 70 per cent of that is consumed in India.

The tea fields of Munnar in Kerala, one of India's major tea growing regions.
The tea fields of Munnar in Kerala, one of India's major tea growing regions.
In the 1920s tea companies began marketing cheaper grades of dust tea, selling them in small sachets, distributing free samples and giving tea making demonstrations.

Later, advertisers marketed tea as a drink with the power to refresh and restore workers’ stamina, setting up tea stalls in factories and granting workers tea breaks. Tea sellers also started to appear at India’s busy railway stations. But it was the period after India’s independence in 1947 that saw the greatest change. Tea was promoted as “100 % Swadeshi”, meaning made in India, a nationalist term from the independence movement: Indians were reclaiming tea as their own. Advanced tea processing technology meant dust grade tea (broken tea leaf fragments) became widely available to buy in bulk and its affordability saw tea stalls and shops pop up across the country. By the 1960s, what had started out as an exotic drink for the elite had transformed into the drink of the masses.

Tea plants in Munnar, Kerala.
A tea worker in Munnar, Kerala.

The tea mix on the burner has brewed and Suresh removes the pot from the heat, pouring the rich milky liquid into small glasses. Some tea stalls serve chai in petite, unglazed, terracotta cups, called kullarhs, which come with the added benefit that you can smash the cup when you’ve finished, making for an even more satisfying tea hit.

A chai wallah in Chennai.
A chai wallah in Pushkar.
A chai wallah in Chennai.

From stall to stall and state to state, brewing techniques, ingredients and quality vary, but chai is often served as masala chai, masala meaning “spice mixture”. In this part of Northern India, chai is generally made by boiling up a strong blend of black tea with water, sugar, milk and an aromatic spice mix, including the likes of fresh ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and black pepper. But we’d seen and tasted the result of many different methods; in Tamil Nadu for example, tea and spices are brewed separately to the milk, which is pulled with sugar to create a frothy mix and combined with the spiced tea infusion just before serving.

As a final flourish Suresh sprinkles his masala blend directly into the glasses of chai before mixing. Masala is the element of Indian chai that isn’t new and, renowned for its Ayurvedic properties, has been consumed in India for thousands of years. Indians seem to find a way to put masala in anything; from masala cola to masala mouth freshener, there really is no limit, so why would chai be any different? Masala is the Indian twist on the standard cup of tea.

Suresh's father was a renowned Kushti teacher in Varanasi.
Suresh's father was a renowned Kushti teacher in Varanasi.

We sit down on one of the wobbly benches to drink our chai and from inside one of the counter units Suresh pulls out a book on Kushti, a form of South Asian wrestling popular in Varanasi. He proudly explains how his father was a renowned wrestler and teacher of the discipline in the city. He’s passed away now, but his picture and that of the tea stall’s stare back at us from the book. Suresh doesn’t practice Kushti but shows us some objects from his own hobbies: a coin collection and some old film cameras, he’s eager for us to see that there’s more to him than just chai.

Suresh's job requires stamina: hundreds of cups of chai must be churned out daily to make ends meet, the days start early and finish late and come monsoon rain or blistering heat he’s at his burner brewing tea for anyone who visits his stall that day. All are welcome.

Although his father and grandfather were both chai wallahs, he’s determined that his daughter will be the one to break this trend, paying extra for her to attend an English speaking school in a bid to improve her future prospects. Suresh is just one of hundreds of thousands of chai wallahs across India, each with a story and a cup of chai unique to them.