The Best Chai

another-chaiDo you remember? We were at that market, Janpath, I think -the one near Connaught place. You took us out of the crowd, pulling me, following some delicate scent that I couldn’t make out. We wove in and out of parked cars and a chain link fence; we followed the curve of a broken concrete wall that crashed into the sidewalk. Right there sat a round little man -a chai walla- in front of a kerosene stove and a huge pot of boiling chai.

His assistant busily slopped chai from a huge stainless-steel pitcher into teapots, thermoses, plastic bags, and any other container that would hold the rich, brown liquid. After, the same assistant tied those bags, arranged lids back on their pots, and collected money -almost in a blur. The chai walla’s other assistant barely managed to lug a second pot of milk to sit atop a second kerosene stove. That pot of milk looked like it held one day’s worth of milking from a single cow, but oh, how creamy it looked.

When the chai walla’s pot was empty, he put it back onto the still huge flame. The mixture of old tea, sugar, and mushy ginger sizzled, releasing a ginger caramel scent. Without pause, the chai walla deftly ladled milk, water, handfuls of ginger, and a whole lot more sugar into the chai pot.

In minutes, the whole thing was again boiling furiously. The chai walla cast a handful of dried tea across the roiling mixture and sat back, waiting for something or maybe for nothing, while one of his assistants again positioned two sieves on top of a stainless steel pitcher. When it was the right moment, the chai walla jumped into motion, ladling boiling chai over the sieves from two feet above.

While the pitcher filled up with frothy chai, the assistant who had arranged lids and took money, now arranged tiny paper cups. A few seconds later, he slopped chai into every single one and called out for money. You gave him twenty rupees and he handed me two boiling hot cups. You took one and slurped with an almost painful grin. I was more cautious and gingerly drank my chai in tentative sips. I had never tasted better.

I remember the afternoon light and how soft it was, like how your face looked when you drank that tea.




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