City Food – Roadside Chai, Around Town
King of brews.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
As Delhi acquires the trappings of a modern metropolis, the carts dedicated exclusively to serving tea are becoming fewer. But it is still possible to stop in the middle of a busy road and quench one’s thirst for tea for just a couple of rupees.
Until early 2011, each morning, be it winter or summer, an old sari-clad woman – a migrant from Bihar – would pull in her chai cart at the entrance of Hauz Khas Village, south Delhi. As the tea boiled on her kerosene stove, morning walkers from the adjacent Rose Garden and Deer Park arrived to sit on cement blocks placed beside the cart where they read the newspapers and discussed the day’s headlines. Apart from the stove and kettle, the tea cart had plastic jars of fen and rusks, the classic chai accompaniments. Yet the chai was perfect on its own. With a hint of of crushed ginger, it was not too strong, too milky or too sugary. Sometimes a leaf from the neem tree above fell into the kettle.
Unfortunately, that tea woman has vanished. Perhaps she has returned to her village in Bihar.
The more boisterous experience can be lived at Ballimaran in Shahjahanabad. The Firdaus Mithai Shop, near Mughal-era poet Mirza Ghalib’s haveli, has been brewing sweet, milky chai for 60 years. When a customer wishes to be generous to his friend, he asks the waiter for the chai to be topped with malai (cream).
A curious feature of chai-drinking in Shahjahanabad is that it is drunk from a glass tumbler fitted inside a china cup. The cup’s handle protects the bare hands from the chai’s burning heat.
The park above the Palika Bazaar parking lot in the center of the colonial-era Connaught Place is a popular gay cruising joint. There, chai vendors are the only welcoming interference in the quests for love and sex. Moving with thermos flasks and plastic cups, these bhayyas are perhaps the only friends to the park’s lonely regulars.
If Delhi were a country, roadside chai would be its national drink.
Chai for the chicken?
High tea with nuts
Starting the day
I want your chai, and smile
The city is going to dogs
Just a job
Chai hour over
Zen and the art of chai drinking
On the boil
Less burning this way
A life of chai
Chai in the park
That’s the flow
Proust and chai
Pondering over tea
Beginning to end
About to boil
The old Hauz Khas tea mornings
The tea woman of Hauz Khas Village
Good day, sir
No milk? Cheating!