City Food – Mr Mukhtar’s Spicy Lemon Tea, Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti
An uncommon street tea.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Such a small place, but packed with so many points of interests. Delhi’s greatest poet, Mirza Ghalib, is buried here. So is the legendary poet and musician, Amir Khusro. This place is also home to the beautiful tomb of Atgah Khan, a noble in Akbar’s court. The white marble Chausath Khamba, Delhi’s only Jehangir-era architectural souvenir, is also here. Then there is the enigmatic Barakhamba monument. And, of course, the heart of Nizamuddin Basti beats in the Sufi shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, from whom this central Delhi village takes its name.
You might have already been to these places. But now you have to come here to have a taste of Delhi’s most amazing chai. Apologies, it is tea – it has no milk. Every evening, Mr Mukhtar walks down the Basti’s lanes with the tea thermos in his hand. Almost every shopkeeper, fakir, flower seller, ittar seller, biryani hawker, barber, labourer, butcher, veggie seller, mask seller and beggar living in the area is a fan of his tea.
“It is called lemon tea,” he explains.
What’s the big deal? You might wonder. The thing is, it’s not the tea per se, but it’s the crucial embellishments that Mr Mukhtar makes to the piping hot brew.
This icy cold evening, while making a customary round of Mirza Ghalib Street, Mr Mukhtar parks himself on one side of the lane (outside a Covid vaccination clinic) and generously reveals his recipe. It is very simple, he says with modesty. “I start the preparation in my room.” He lives in the Basti. “I heat water in a large pan, then I add normal chai patti to it, along with sugar, some black salt, some ginger, some laung and some kaali mirch. Then I keep the whole thing on boil for some time.”
The concoction is finally transferred to a thermos that keeps it hot, after which Mr Mukhtar hits the lanes. His final touch to the tea occurs at the point of serving. Right now, attending to a flower seller, he pours the tea into a paper cup — and the steam comes out instantly. He sprinkles a pinch of “jeera and kaalaa namak roasted together”. (The spices go first!)
The first sip itself starts the magic. The familiar flavour of lemon tea is interlaced with a soothing whiff of spices that freshens the palate and leaves a nice, pungent sensation in the throat. A feeling of intense relaxation courses through the body. This is just what you needed, you’ll realise.
Nevertheless it is astonishing that such a watery spiced tea is managing to survive in a city that celebrates the sweet milky chai, malai maar ke. “They both have their place in the world,” says Mr Mukhtar judiciously.
A native of Bihar, he worked in Delhi as a labourer for more than a decade, and started his evening chai service five years ago. He operates daily from 4pm to 8pm. Walk along the Basti lanes and look out for him. He tends to pop up like a djinn from a random turning.
Calm in a tea cup