City Food - Crossword Chai, Sirajuddin's Tea Stall

City Food – Crossword Chai, Sirajuddin’s Tea Stall

City Food - Crossword Chai, Sirajuddin's Tea Stall

A tea house too unique.

[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]

The yellow walls are gone. They are now blue. “I painted it myself, some weeks ago, before the beginning of the Ramzan,” says the tea stall man.

Fortunately, the chai place still looks like a crossword puzzle, the very thing that makes Sirajuddin’s tea stall among Delhi-NCR’s most fascinating street-side stops. The uniqueness is in a shelf clamped onto the wall—see photo. It has wooden slabs running from top to bottom, and from left to right. This divides the shelf into an array of square-shaped spaces, making it resemble the crossword puzzles you find in newspapers.

Except that instead of alphabet letters, the tiny boxes are casually crammed up with tea things. One box has ginger sprigs, dwarfed by pink and green mugs. Another has a chipped kettle (the tea man just took off the “ketli” to make a fresh round of chai). Another box is filled with white-brown china cups. The top right box is stocked with a tiny metal trunk—possibly a cash box. There are also rusty metallic tea carriers that holds several chai glasses together. Oh look, a lunchbox too.

The establishment was founded in 1977 in Old Delhi’s Turkman Gate bazar by Muhammed Sirajuddin. He lies buried at the Dilli Gate graveyard, his legacy passed down to his two sons. Alimuddin (aka Nanhe), who sits during the first half of the day, is full of easy laughter and mock taunting. Younger Moinuddin (aka Mannu) is forever dressed in a gentle smile. He sits from 1.30pm onwards until the stall’s midnight closure.

The stall has a set of benches on which the customers watch the busy street traffic of humans, goats, dogs, mules, cats and rats. A partly broken wooden chair is lacquered with the patina of several years. The stall’s more picturesque seating is across the lane, on a stone platform, beside an unknown person’s marble grave. The regulars lounge there all day long, gossiping over milky chai, dunked down with fen and biskut.

The last major change in the stall, before the blue paint job, was the replacement of the coal-fired bhatti with gas cylinder in 2017. The earlier yellow paint was done on the walls in 2007. And before the tea stall came up, the chai man says, the stall was actually a staircase that opened into a nail-manufacturing “mill.” Its late owner’s name is half-fading on the stall’s back wall—Girdhar Panna. That “mill” closed long ago. Its deserted yard, behind the tea stall, is wild with trees and bushes, but barely visible from the street.

One rare afternoon, many months ago, Sirajuddin’s chai stall was unexpectedly closed. The crossword shelf was locked behind a wooden lid. The place looked as poignant as the facing marble grave.