Sitting ‘atop a hill’ in the foothills of the Himalaya, watching the most incredible sunset, not a soul around, the problems of the world left far behind, could life get much better? Well yes, as it happens. When I say ‘not a soul’ there was one, the local sadhu. He had watched me climb the hill, nodded as I marvelled at the view, and then as I sat myself down on the most comfortable rock, he started foraging around for leaves and twigs. These he placed in a pile, surrounded by stones and the odd brick left over from the building of the adjacent small temple, lit them and then from his cave (literally), he produced a pan, water, powdered milk, cardamom pods, Red Label tea (the only tea to make chai with, take note) and of course sugar. He waggled his head at me, in that oh so Indian way, and which invariably means a mark of acceptance, and squatted down to watch the pot boil and thereafter produced a delicious cup of chai. Having been shown such acceptance and hospitality I didn’t even have the cheek to ask for ‘less sugar’ and we then sat in a companionable silence, sipping chai, watching the sunset and pondering on whatever thoughts, if any, passed through from our subconscious. As is usual for me, common sense had receded and thoughts of how to get back down the hill in the dark were far from my mind.
In India, as some of you will know, each state is like a different country, and can have a different language and even script. People will look different and the food they eat is also different, from curry and rice in the south to meat and roti in Rajasthan. Yet, one thing remains constant, delicious, sweet, cardamom (and sometimes ginger and even pepper) scented chai, and when I say sweet, I mean sweet!
A cup of chai in India is akin to the great British cuppa in the UK. Two vastly different drinks, starting out with the same ingredients, having an extremely different end product but both serving the same purpose.
Being offered either is almost second nature. Arrive at a friend’s house in the UK and the kettle is flicked on almost before the door has shut behind you; it is similar in India, though water is the first offering followed by asking the staff to make the chai. Both denote friendship, the solution to a time of crisis (it is virtually impossible to be upset in the UK without someone saying ‘I’ll just put the kettle on’) and a mark of acceptance.
The experience of drinking chai is far far removed from the modern coffee houses that are starting to take over in all major, and some minor cities and towns throughout India. These belong to the young generations and the nouveau riche, where all things western are considered the height of cool. Meeting for a coffee is the ‘in’ thing to do and meeting at a coffee house, the ‘in’ place to be despite the fact that a coffee can cost 28 times that of a chai from a chai wala on the street. I wouldn’t care, but the likes of Café Coffee Day can’t even make a decent coffee, not to mention snacks to go with it, and the places are characterless. I really would rather shoot myself than force one down in one of their establishments and don’t get me started on the service which is often at best, lackadaisical and shoddy. Now take a chai wala on the street who has been brewing his chai with love and care in the same spot for generations. Standing and chatting, passing the time of day, knowing his town and the people in it. His friends turn up every day and passers-by stop for a brew and a chat, it’s part of the charm of any Indian destination urban, suburban or rural.
I have had chai at truck stops on highways, at the top of mountains, in cities, in remote areas and once when caught up in the Gujar agitation in a remote region of Rajasthan, there was nothing else to do but retreat a couple of hundred metres to the nearest chai stand and with a ‘kya karain’ or a ‘what to do’ sat and sipped on a cuppa amidst many a head waggle.
As in the UK, in India, the day often starts with chai and in rural areas, often it is all that is consumed until the first meal of the day taken late morning. When I lived in the jungle, the staff would make chai and then I would watch incredulously as they would put not just one, two or possibly three sugars into their cup, but eight and these cups are small!
Now, I love Indian food as everyone who knows me will testify, but the Indian sweet tooth is something I have never developed. Offer me dosa with gunpowder, poha or paratha for breakfast and you will have me dancing with glee but offer me gulab jamun or ras gula for desert after a meal and you will have me running for the hills. For those not in the know, gulab jamun are dough type balls, fried and soaked in sugar syrup, the sugar hit is as painful as having foil placed on a filling and to be honest I would rather do that and avoid the addition to the hips. Ras gula is made from compressed cottage cheese which is then soaked in sugar syrup. In addition to the sugar hit there is an issue with texture here too, this is a food substance which, when put in your mouth and bitten into, squeaks and squirts and that is just plain wrong. Anyhow, wherever I am and whenever I am offered chai, my refrain is ji hain, lekin chinni cum – or ‘’yes, but with less sugar.’’ I love coming across a chai wala, asking for chai and then sitting down and waiting for it to brew, peacefully watching the world go by. I usually get wonderful service, of course asking for ‘chai less sweet’ in Hindi usually causes a stir and a chat, only limited by my Hindi/their English, soon wanes as we lapse into a companionable silence, savouring this truly Indian experience.
It is also not uncommon for chai to find you rather than the other way around in the form of the mobile chai wala. Whereas in the UK we can’t conceive of making chai when out and about, they wander around, with their big silver kettle attached to a stand which has a flame/kalor gas ring and will squat down and heat up and sell you a chai for 5 or 7 rupees in a terracotta cup, it’s even environmentally friendly.
I think that chai is becoming less popular is that it is considered a desi or locals experience, that doesn’t therefore appeal to the middle classes and indeed, I have yet to find a decent hotel which serves a proper cup of desi chai, the best to be found in my experience is at Bissau House, five star hotels fail miserably. So, according to my taste (soon agreed upon and adhered to by my ever faithful Delhi staff, Kalpana and Dhiraj) here is the perfect chai recipe:
Pour water into a pan, add 2 teaspoons of sugar, a hefty wedge of ginger (sliced), 5 bruised cardamom pods (I even get mine sent from south India) and leave to simmer for a good 5 – 10 mins to allow the flavours to develop. Then shake in a reasonable amount of Red Label loose leaf tea and bring to the boil. Add milk and bring to a simmer then strain and serve. For an afternoon brew, Good Day biscuits (the best in India, forget Oreos, Hobnobs, Timtams ++) are an excellent accompaniment.
Sadly, despite my best efforts, for some reason, it just does not taste the same when made in the UK, no matter that I have had all the ingredients sent over from India, perhaps it is the Yorkshire water that does not agree. So, on this, my last trip to India for several months, between Delhi, Kanha, Jaipur and Cochin, I am stopping at every conceivable chai stand and savouring this ubiquitous taste of India.