City Food – Mukhtar’s Cold Season Tea, Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti
The sip of winter.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Here are some of the sure signs of the arrival of winter season in Delhi, besides the obvious one of a nip in the air: opening of Lodhi Gardens at 6am instead of the summertime 5am, unprecedented rise of smog in Delhi’s air, and the return of street vendor Mukhtar’s special tea.
Delhi’s most rare sort of street chai, it has neither malai nor milk, and it pops up only for the duration of cold months.
Every evening, Mukhtar walks down the lanes of Nizamuddin Basti with the tea thermos in one hand and a bag filled with plastic glasses in the other. Almost every shopkeeper, fakir, flower seller, ittar seller, biryani hawker, wayside poet, pavement barber, idle gossiper, labourer, butcher, veggie seller, mask seller, datun seller, toys seller, and beggar living/working in the area is a loyalist of Mukhtar’s tea. It is called lemon tea, he always points out to his new customers, insisting that “it is not just tea.”
This smoggy November evening, Mukhtar is walking with his tea things in front of Basti’s Abdul Aziz Market and passes by a series of chai shops and lassi stalls—old-timers claim that late painter MF Husain would often be spotted sitting in one of the chai places here. Anyhow, Mukhtar pauses to say that he re-started his lemon tea service around a week back. He lives in this same locality, and prepares the tea in his rented one-room house. “I add chai patti to water, along with some sugar, some kaala namak, some peesi hui adrak, some laung and some kaali mirch. I boil the whole thing for some time.”
Mukhtar starts his rounds on the streets as soon as afternoon turns to evening. The final touch to the tea occurs at the point of serving it to the individual customer. Right now, attending to travel agent Kazim of Kaynat Tours and Travels, he pours the tea into a paper glass — steam comes out instantly. But first he sprinkles a pinch of roasted jeera and roasted kaalaa namak into the glass.
The very first sip is the punchiest. The flavour of lemon tea is entwined with that of spices; together they rejuvenate the palate and leaves a nice, pungent sensation in the throat. This tea brings a special, if fleeting, relief to the sore throat, a malady so common in these days of high smog.
It is astonishing that such a tea survives in a city highly prejudiced towards the sweet milky chai. “They both have their place in the world,” Mukhtar had once said to this reporter in a conciliatory tone. But then he cannot afford to say bad things about the milky chai, which he sells the rest of the year—though he switches to cold rose sherbet during the peak summer months.
A Bihar native, Mukhtar started his innings in Delhi as a labourer. Ten years later, he reinvented himself as a chai man. He operates daily from 4pm to 8pm.