The Architecture of Chai

Jim Manjooran

Jim Manjooran runs an architecture practice based in his home state of Goa, where he strives to incorporate regional and local characteristics into modern designs. He is a 1994 graduate of the School of Architecture at the Arvindbhai Patel Institute of Environmental Design in Vallabh Vidyanagar, Gujarat.

The chai Jim Manjooran drank at architecture school more than 20 years ago provided lasting memories and the blueprint for a successful career. In this Chai Diaries entry, he recounts some of those memories:

My “tryst” with chai was realized 25 years ago during my architecture school days in Vallabh Vidyanagar, a campus town in Gujarat.

Jim and his classmates juggle cups of chai and blueprints.

Jim and his classmates juggle cups of chai and blueprints.


The study course of architecture is one of the most trying professional studies, next only to medicine, with incessant all-nighters, hunched over drawing boards, buried deep into tracing papers, surrounded by lead pencils, inking pens, scales and the like, for each and every of the five years that the course required – a pressure cooker situation that could only be alleviated by a very short list of methods perfected by those who had already gone through the rigor of architecture school. A break for a cup or two of chai, freshly brewed by the overfriendly neighborhood chai wallah in company of good friends, in the outdoors, was right on top of this precious list.

A favorite outdoor spot to sip cups of chai.


“Chai ho jai!” was the most welcoming of shout-outs to everyone to gather for a round of tea. Those words were magical, breathing life into tired bodies and minds – and suddenly life was beautiful!

Its literal translation has a God-like connotation and it goes “Let there be tea!” There are many who will even swear that this phrase is equal to, if not more effective than, that other set of famous words: “Let there be life!”

These chai breaks of our growing up time in architecture school fostered a unity akin to a kind of chai brotherhood, cutting across different cultures, uniting North Indians with South Indians, breaking down barriers between seniors and juniors, even between professors and students, between the chai wallah and the chai pine wallah (chai drinker), uniting everyone in their shared enthusiasm, pursuit and enjoyment of this good brew.

One of the gang's favorite chai shops.

One of the gang’s favorite chai shops.


During those strenuous times in the school of architecture, chai sipping was the one of the better habits that we cultivated among scores of others about which the less said, the better!

It’s now been 25 years since those glory days, and circumstances have changed, but this desirable chai fixation continues to flourish. The pressures of architecture school are now replaced by the pulls and pushes of a busy private architectural practice, but the essence of a round of chai remains the same: a lifter of moods and the ultimate unifier.

Jim and a friend take a chai break during one of their many all-nighters.

Pre-dawn chai in rural India, 1982

Daniele G.

Daniele G. is an expert in sustainable development who advises development institutions and governments on improving sustainability practices.

A morning chai routine is more than just a means of consuming caffeine to start the day. It provides a chance to observe, reflect and be a part of a community. Daniele G., who today advises development institutions and governments on improving sustainability practices, worked in India in 1982. More than thirty years later he still remembers the cups of pre-dawn chai he would sip in rural Maharashtra. Here is his Chai Diaries entry:

Buffalo dung patties dry to be used for fuel in Hathlana, Haryana

Buffalo dung patties dry to be used for fuel in Hathlana, Haryana

My footsteps seemed inordinately loud crunching the dried leaves and random sticks along the dark narrow path heading away from my small room at the far end of the mango grove. Before placing my foot I took a slight momentary pause, hoping to diminish the disturbance of an otherwise nearly silent pre-dawn. The path wound under trees and past fields, gently rising and falling in near darkness. Beyond our compound, it skirted along the shabby old fences that could not hold anything in or keep anything out but that serve simply to mark property in these remote rural areas. It was a serene time, surprisingly cool enough to warrant a shawl and more than one layer of my thin cotton clothing.  Bombay, about four hours away by road, rarely experienced this calming coolness during the hot months as the built mass of asphalt, steel, and cement continued to radiate the day’s heat through much of the night.

The beauty of that time was, in part, the soothing quiet of an era in rural Maharashtra when radios and electric lights were not so common and were used sparingly. Even the odors were muted at that hour. I loved the meditative gliding of those early morning walks, disturbed only by my sandals. Of those many walks, when thinking was unnecessary, the memory of only one thought remains now, thirty years later, because it accompanied my walks for months. I had heard of an early morning scorpion sting that swelled a neighbor’s foot to a painful lurid purple. Closed shoes were out of the question in this climate and conditions and, for quite a while, that small possibility of arachnids made each and every darkened step feel like an individual adventure.

My daily walk was not without intention. Of course, the walk itself had a soothing purpose all its own but my daily objective was nearly always the same. I had learned how to boil and mix the array of ingredients for an authentic spiced chai and needed fresh milk. Refrigeration was not available and so getting fresh milk each day was the only option and I had located the dudh wallah down the road. But this was not run-of-the-mill cow’s milk. No, I had discovered something much more tasty: water buffalo milk. At first look, I would not have guessed that this dark, nearly fierce looking animal that was often in a mud hole would produce such delicious milk. The flavor was not so very different from cow’s milk but the fat content was more than double and it made the best chai I ever tasted.

A dudh wallah in Rettanai, Tamil Nadu

A dudh wallah in Rettanai, Tamil Nadu

Each morning, I walked early to the stalls before the milking occurred. This was important because the dudh wallah regularly diluted this rich milk as soon as it was in the big aluminum tubs. Arriving even 10 minutes late meant you got watered down milk. Apparently that was the norm. A couple of hours after milking, he loaded two large aluminum canisters with a long hooked ladle onto a sturdy bicycle and visited people in the small village for their delivery. I doubt anyone knew the milk had added water and I wondered how many things we simply do not know about the foods we purchase.

We never spoke of it, his dilution. He knew and I knew, but speaking of it seemed an unnecessary rudeness. On some mornings it seemed that it was not altogether pleasant for him to part with undiluted milk and even the slight upcharge that I quietly allowed him did not prevent him from occasionally attempting to fill my small bowl with a diluted batch. Of the many things I learned during that year, one was that what may be inappropriate from my perspective, was an accepted cultural or societal norm from another. I learned to suspend judgment when possible and to simply observe and learn. In fact, I sometimes felt slightly embarrassed to show up in his milking yard in the dark to be the only exception to his business practices. Yet, I always stood close by, watching that my portion came from the pure milk. Once I grew accustomed to the taste of full fat buffalo milk, it was not easy going back. In later years, returning to live in in the US and elsewhere, I never again bought cow’s milk. The relatively thin chalky flavor simply lost its appeal. I felt the same about chai in the US, Australia, and Europe; it paled in comparison to what was available in nearly every part of India, and almost always disappointed. Refined tastes sometimes carry with them a bit of a curse, like Tantalus never to be satisfied. But there were many satisfactions while there in that small rural community.

The whole milk, undiluted and still warm from the dark animal, was my reward for the walk. Its warmth comforting to my hands cradling the open aluminum container that served as both the receptacle and then later to boil the milk, and mix the chai, one pot for everything. It was 10 inches across and about five inches deep with a broad half inch lip all around to help grip and pour. Heading back along the path to my hut I more than once tripped and spilled part of the milk. I accepted the consequence of my carelessness, less chai to drink and never returned for more milk. Buying a closed canister would have cost the equivalent of a week’s expenses and it was thus an unnecessary luxury. Besides, many local families had only one or two such containers. Walking with that open bowl was an act of simplicity, an invitation to mindfulness, a soft stride, and patience. Once back, I carefully lit the small gas stove, even matches were not plentiful, and judiciously measured out the tea and masala ingredients. As the smell of gas and sulphur quickly dissipated, the aromas of chai emerged. The sharp fragrance of tea was first, the cinnamon, pepper, and other spices slowly emerged into the cool morning air and then finally, as it all came to a boil, the caramel scent of sugar added last. A cotton cloth served for filtering and no tea cups, just small sturdy glasses as was the local custom. The morning focus, nearly every day, was this chai ritual. It would be several hours yet before a breakfast could be had and chai’s familiar aromatic warmth was a like a first greeting from a friend, constant and intimate, a small ceremony that never failed to soften my face in a grateful smile.

A girl in Hathlana, Haryana with her water buffalo.

A girl in Hathlana, Haryana with her water buffalo.

Pre-dawn is a wonderful time to move in India; heat, dust, humans, and noise are all subdued. On some mornings I went in another direction on a much longer walk ambling past the sleeping local village. The objective was a natural thermal spring in a valley that required crossing a broad, mostly shallow river, always hoping that it was low enough to allow a dry crossing on the stones. Near the banks among the scrub trees sadhus, wanderers, and mendicants occasionally camped for the night. Even at two or three in the morning the occasional smoky scent of a chillum or the faint glow of a beedi – the preferred local smoke of the poor – were signals of their presence. This broad valley had long been held as a holy place and dozens of temples dotted its landscape of small villages.

On the other side, further up the valley, was a tiny ancient dome-roofed stone temple unmarked and unadorned. The temple was always empty at this hour and an ideal place to sit quietly. I brought Paul Horn with me on that walk once. We had met while I assisted the mounting of the ITA’s Ancient Wisdom and Modern Science conference in Bombay, where he gave a concert, and he had come out for a visit to the community. When we reached the temple and quietly sat inside I could not find my usual serenity, I could only recall his haunting flute recordings in other unique places like the Taj Mahal or the Great Pyramid and spent a half hour alternating between kicking myself for not suggesting that he bring his flute and then feeling selfish for wanting a solo concert. Later however, over cups of hot chai and breakfast, I did get something far more valuable: some of the most memorable advice in my 24 years of life.

Near the temple, a natural hot spring served as the ideal prelude to sitting quietly in that temple. If we reached it before dawn when farmers came there to wash their cows and other things, it served as a silent magical place to soak. Enveloped in the dark steamy water and leaning back to look up at a brilliantly star-flecked sky was a sublime luxury and well worth the 40 minute walk. On the return, in the pre-dawn glow, the village chai shop was just coming to life and we were the first guests. With very limited funds, this was a delightful small luxury and it was nearly impossible to walk past the inviting smell of the first morning brew.

Usually alone I asked for one but on that day, naturally I would have asked for two or “Do chai bhaai.” The small thick four-ounce glasses came with mismatched saucers under them and if you could not wait for the liquid to cool, a small amount could be tipped into the saucer where it cooled and could be sipped. I never did that and simply enjoyed the slow process of the ritual itself. It was an aromatic delight and extended the experience beyond the few minutes that it took to drink the small portion and watch the goings on in the shop and the waking community just outside.

The décor was standard in the region: Hard and rather small angular chairs and simple wooden tables that had once been painted although it was difficult to ascertain what the original color might have been. An open-air room with no glass in the windows or simply no walls. Where there were walls, they were a pastel shade glaring in the light of a single bare bulb. The featured decorations were inevitably a brightly hued portrait calendar and a small alter or shrine where incense or a flame sometimes burned. Of the vast pantheon of deities depicted in the wall pictures and calendars across India, four were most popular and ever-present: Ganesh, Krishna (sometimes with Arjuna), Lakshmi, and the pair of Ram & Sita. Their ornateness and intense coloring were fascinating, and in stark contrast to typical wall calendars in Europe and the US where saints or Christian themes did certainly appear but they were much more likely to feature an advertisement for the utterly mundane such as tires (sometimes with less mundane cleavage to draw attention) or some bucolic pastoral scene. Here religion, or at least reminders of the spiritual life, were ever present as the stories or parables of these Hindu deities that graced nearly every room I ever saw in India.

That long ago morning with Paul etched the chai shop indelibly in my mind. We spoke for hours and I listened to the wisdom he shared about his own travelling experiences and life choices as I was facing choices of my own. Paul told me about his early life and how being a musician was not what his family expected of him. He struggled at first, playing in cafes to make ends meet but always steadfastly doing what he loved regardless of the earnings or expectations. Eventually, doing what you love will likely lead to doing it well and the passion of that pursuit is what opens doors to success; a success that is on your own terms. Paul was certainly the embodiment of that with world-wide fame and a number of very successful albums as a product of his passion for the music he loved. He said, “it is never work if what you are doing is what you love”. This idea may not have been new but, on that crisp clear morning, surrounded by the steamy aroma of chai after a long serene soak in the springs, it penetrated straight to my heart and became a guiding memory for the rest of my life. Thank you Paul.

Pappu’s Chai Stall

Jenny Kostecki-Shaw and Patrick Shaw

Jenny Kostecki-Shaw and Patrick Shaw (a.k.a. The Masala Chai Wallah) share a love for good chai, Indian culture and each other. Jenny is a freelance illustrator and national award-winning children’s book author and illustrator. Patrick teaches Ayurveda, Ayurvedic cooking and Ayurvedic herbology at the University of New Mexico in Taos and has been making homemade masala chai for over 20 years. They recently published an illustrated book, Chai Pilgrimage, which you can order at

Inspired by their love of chai, Patrick Shaw and Jenny Kostecki-Shaw embarked on a pilgrimage around North India to collect recipes, learn about ayurvedic traditions, and find out the secret behind what makes a good cup of chai. They recently published their story in a beautifully illustrated book, Chai Pilgrimage. Their journey led them to Pappu’s chai stall in the sacred city of Varanasi.

Amid the traffic of rickshaws, motor scooters, market-goers and a small herd of water buffalo being led down the road, we discovered the popular Pappu chai stall. Early in the day, it is a gathering place for elder intellectual types who read the newspaper, debate political issues and get their morning dose. After hours, it becomes a quiet hangout for bhang (edible marijuana) users. Locals told us the chai stand had been there for 80 or 100 years.

We sat down outside on a low concrete wall next to Ashu, a regular customer and owner of Shiva Rooftop Restaurant down the street. Over the noise of horns and bicycle bells, we asked him what made Pappu chai so special. “Because it is hygienic,” he told us. “They clean the gilaas [Hindi for glass] every time by the hot water. It is unique way. You will never see like this one.” It was true. In all our time in India, we had never witnessed soap or hot water being used to clean glasses or any chai-making implement. We observed as a young boy first rinsed the glasses in reused cold water like other chai stalls, then gave them a thorough cleansing with hot water that was boiled on an open coal fire. The health of chai drinkers across India would surely benefit from this trademark disinfecting procedure.

Manoj operated his chai stall with great precision and speed. A third-generation chai wallah, he employed an unconventional chai-making technique handed down from his grandfather. Instead of making a pot of chai, each glass was prepared individually in assembly-line fashion. First, he carefully calculated the number of glasses to be made by a count of seated customers, expected regulars and estimated drop-ins. The glasses were grouped together into three parallel rows, and a spoonful of sugar was put in the bottom of each glass. Manoj ladled hot milk on top of the sugar, then measured the tea by hand into a tea “sock,” with tea carefully added or taken out to suit the number of glasses being made. Boiling water was then slowly poured over the tea until it was fully saturated and the tea water started to come through. When the flowing tea had a rich, dark-brown color, it was quickly passed over the glasses with one hand while hot water was poured from the kettle with the other hand. He first moved the filtered tea lengthwise over the line of glasses, then back and forth. A little more tea was added, then again across the glasses. Unlike other stalls, the chai at Pappu’s is made from “new tea every time — not boiling again and again,” Ashu told us.

We learned that Manoj prepares about 700-800 glasses of chai per day from five in the morning until ten at night. We asked Ashu, “How much per glass?”

He answered, “two rupees,” and before I could do the dollar conversion of multiply, take off the zero and divide by four, the chai wallah started laughing and talking to us in Hindi. Ashu explained, “There are many customers that come every day and they are friends and take chai free. Many one is coming here and many crowd and he’ll give you chai and [snaps fingers] “chalo” [meaning “let’s go!”] — not paying the money. But they’re not caring about these things because they’re very much very good fellows.”

Finally, Manoj stirred each glass vigorously, with the rhythm and calm fervor of a classical Indian drummer. The “clink-clanking” of the metal spoon against glass was like a dinner bell to the customers. In the madness of anxious hands grabbing for their glasses of chai, Manoj handed us ours.

It was dark, bold and on the edge of being too bitter. I liked it. Even though the tea was not steeped or boiled like most, it bore a distinctive strong tea flavor that provided quite a wake-up. We attempted to give Manoj four rupees for our chais, but he just shook his head and smiled.

Jenny Kostecki-Shaw and Patrick Shaw enjoying chai in kulhars, traditional clay cups popular in Varanasi.

My Tryst with Tea: Of Bureaucrats and Travels

Saanya Gulati

Since returning to India after completing her B.A. from Tufts University in Boston, Saanya has worked in Delhi on different initiatives that increase citizen engagement in India’s political discourse. She blogs about contemporary political and social issues when she is not curled up with a book at home, or out exploring new lands. You can read her work at and follow her on Twitter @BombayDelhiGirl.

Saanya Gulati, an astute observer of South Asian politics, culture and society, files this report of her tryst with tea. Read more of her work at and on Twitter.


I was a heavy coffee drinker during the four years I spent in the United States completing my undergraduate studies. My tryst with tea began only upon moving back to Delhi after I graduated. At first it was the elaichi-flavoured Tetley tea bags, which were quick and easy to make at home. Soon my mornings felt incomplete without a steaming hot cup of the strong beige liquid.

I am accustomed to drinking my chai without sugar – the same way I would drink coffee – how else do you enjoy the real flavour? But unsweetened chai is a bit of an anomaly in India. The first time I asked for chai without sugar at the tea-stall outside my office in Delhi, the chai wallah responded, “pheekee chai?” which literally translates to “bland tea?” – and thus I was outcast as a pheekee chai drinker, but a chai drinker nonetheless!

Saanya (right) and her friend Deepa enjoying chai in Amritsar.

Saanya (right) and her friend Deepa enjoying chai in Amritsar.


Chai breaks are an infamous part of the work culture I was exposed to in Delhi. A simple test I devised to determine whether you’re a chai glutton is when your chai wallah starts to give you store credit – because he knows that you will be back the next day, if not within the next few hours! Needless to say, I pass this test. On seeing me walk down, the shopkeeper would yell out to the chai wallah “ek pheekee chai!”  (“one bland tea!”)

To understand just how important chai is to the work culture I was part of, I turn to my favourite joke about the Brazilian bureaucracy:

Two lions escape from a zoo and take different paths; one goes to a wooded park and is apprehended as a soon as he gets hungry and eats a passerby. The second remains at large for months. Finally captured, he returns to the zoo sleek and fat. His companion inquires with great interest, “where did you find such a great hiding place?” “In one of the ministries” is the successful escapee’s answer. “Every three days I ate a bureaucrat and not one noticed.” “So how did you get caught?” “I ate the man who served coffee for the morning break,” comes the sad reply.

This example is apt for India, if you replace coffee with chai. I worked with a Member of Parliament in Delhi for a year, during the course of which I met several bureaucrats and government officials. Every meeting began with the customary offering of chai. We slowly sipped on the sweet milky goodness, while exchanging pleasantries. Chai is the desi way of ‘breaking the ice’ when you meet someone for the first time. You easily avoid the awkward silence by staring down into the swirling beige liquid, alternating between small sips and occasional glances at the person across from you. Soon I mastered the art of drinking chai in official settings.

I also learnt early on to never say ‘no’ when offered chai in such official settings. My first such disastrous mistake resulted in standoffish behaviour from the staff of the official that I was to meet. The next time I visited, I made sure to accept the chai offer, and sure enough, I was chided for having previously refused! Luckily for me, social norm dictates that one chai acceptance neutralises a previous chai refusal. After many chai acceptances, I am now on good terms with the staff at that office.

Chai has also been an integral part of my travels across India – if you are wary of drinking non-bottled water from obscure looking roadside stalls, opt for the chai. I am convinced that the over boiling of the liquid kills any infection or bacteria. This justifies the copious cups of chai I have consumed while waiting at stations, bus stops, and pretty much at any roadside. From Punjab, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Jammu, the chai culture prevails in most of the northern lands I ventured to. Waiting for the parade to begin at the Wagah Border in Amritsar, sitting across the Hameersar Lake in Bhuj with Gujarati folk music in the background, being woken up at an unearthly hour on a bus journey somewhere between Manali and Jammu, there are several memories that involve a cup of chai. Clearly, there is something indescribable about the goodness of garma-garam chai.

Counting the change in my wallet before boarding a train last week, I lamented to my friend, “I have only 20 Rupees. Just one cup of chai for each of us!” to which she responds, “I have 20 Rupees as well. Two cups each, we’re covered.” After all, what better sustenance for an eighteen-hour train journey.


Chai Diaries: A Punjabi Peace Corps Memory

Tondalaya Gillespie

After serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Maharashtra, Tondalaya began a 37-year career in international development, working in the Pacific, Asia, Africa and Europe. Her husband Ron was a Peace Corps volunteer in West Bengal and they married in Delhi in a ceremony that blended Christian, Hindu and Sikh traditions. The couple currently resides in Hawaii but makes frequent trips to the Indian subcontinent with a visit to Bangladesh planned for the fall.

Tondalaya Gillespie submits this Chai Diaries entry from Hawaii’s Big Island, which recently saw the opening of its first Indian restaurant. “It is ek dam pukka,” Gillespie reports. “You can even get veg and non-veg thalis.”

Tondalaya sips chai in Orchha, Madhya Pradesh.

I was a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in India. I also returned for my marriage to a former PCV who was directing a PCV training program at Punjab Agricultural University in Ludhiana, Punjab. I accompanied him on a week’s programing tour along with his language instructor. We made one of our many tea stops at this little roadside makeshift spot which consisted of no more than three charpoys (rope beds) and some rocks piked up to hold the fire to boil the tea. There were a few men squatting around drinking chai and an old old chap sleeping on one of the charpoys. He was snoring away, but undoubtedly heard English being spoken. He rose up, looked at us, and in a loud voice wanted to know why we killed Kennedy, rolled over and went back to snoring!


Tondalaya and Ron's wedding in Delhi, 1971.

Tondalaya and Ron’s wedding in Delhi, 1971.

Yak Milk Chai in the Himalayas

Sonya Dutta Choudhury

A journalist at Mint, an Indian business newspaper, Sonya Dutta Choudhury is used to going the extra mile for a story. Her newfound passion of long-distance multi-day racing often has her going more than just an extra mile. A recent race led her to submit this entry to Chai Diaries.

Sonya Dutta Choudhury, a journalist for Mint, pushed herself to the limit when she participated in the Himalayan Race, a 100-kilometer multi-stage run organized by The WindChasers. Luckily, when the going got tough, a cup of yak milk chai saved the day.

A yak walks down a road in front of Himalayan mountain peaks in Ladakh, India.

A yak walks down a road in front of Himalayan mountain peaks in Ladakh, India.

It was cold in the mountains that September, more so than was usual. There was  rain, and with it mist, that made our progress difficult. We found ourselves stranded. Day 3 of a five-day 100-km race, and we couldn’t go on. Our group of 10 was in a small lodge in Sandakphu, a tiny village on the border of India and Nepal. It had been raining all night, endless streams of water that poured down the mountainside. So when it cleared at 2 pm, without pausing to consider much, we donned our caps and coats and mufflers and our rain gear, and set off running on the trail towards Phalut.

A brief drizzle began, but we ran nonetheless. The mist had cleared and the views of the dark green conifer covered valleys and the mountains were magnificent. Which one was Mt. Makalu, which one was Mt. Lhotse? And in the distance, race director Ram Sethu and guide Pemba Sherpa pointed out, was the highest  mountain in the world Mount Everest.

Running back to the lodge a few hours later, exhausted, breathless at 12,000 feet, we made a stop. Leaving the trail behind, we climbed up, and up. The hut that emerged, on top of the windswept grassy knoll, was a simple one. Outside a little boy ran circles around a yak. Inside was cool and dark. Cooking utensils hung from the ceiling. In the corner was a bed, a fireplace.  Carl, Nancy, Sunita, Priya and I sat inside, while Ram, Pemba and the other guides walked around outside.

“You must have tea,” our village woman host smiled and put a saucepan on the stove. So wonderful was the prospect, that we just smiled happily. We didn’t protest, not even a tiny token,  though it is polite to do so. At least the first time. Instead we watched in fascination and in happy anticipation, as the water in saucepan boiled, with tea leaves and sugar and thick yak milk. The prospect of a cup of tea had never seemed more alluring, even life affirming. When it was ready, glasses of the steaming hot chai were passed around. It was different to any other tea I’ve ever drunk – hot and sweet but also a little salty with the unusual flavour of yak milk.

“Come out,” called Ram, “the clouds have cleared.” So clutching our tea glasses in both hands we each stepped out, onto the mountainside. The sky outside was a rosy pink, and in the distance were revealed the mighty Himalayan peaks. Standing there, drinking in the chai, and the view, I knew for sure, that this was the most wonderful cup of tea I would ever drink.


A Romance to Last a Lifetime

Simran Luthra

A Fulbright Fellow at Stanford University, where she teaches Hindi, Simran has experienced chai across India, from her childhood home in Kolkata to the streets of Hyderabad, where she recently worked.

Simran Luthra’s love for chai runs deep. From early yearnings to drink chai as her older siblings did to poignant memories of chai sipped around India, Simran’s relationship with chai is a lifelong romance.

Drinking chai was an aspiration growing up. With two significantly older siblings who began their mornings with the ritualistic cup of tea, I was only too eager to join the ranks of the tea drinkers. A common way to disincentivize children from drinking tea in India is to tell them that it would make their skin dark, like the color of the beverage. (With the obsession for fair skin, it actually serves its purpose well!) But that argument never really cut the mustard with me. Subsequently my journey as a chai drinker started pretty early on.

Growing up in Kolkata, the capital of Bengal in the east of India, but born into a Punjabi family from the north of the country, provided me insights into the unique traditions of tea drinking of both these states. So while Bengalis mostly have their cha in small quantities, mostly in little, delicate bone-china cups, prepared with a greater proportion of water than milk, the Punjabis prefer their cha in tall glasses (mostly steel), made with more milk than water. My family of course was somewhere in between. My mother and sister had developed distaste for the milky Punjabi chai, and preferred the slightly less milky Bengali style tea. However, the chosen way of consuming it was in glasses (in our case made of glass). And thus it began – the year-upon-year of starting the day with chai along with biscuits, which were of course to be dipped in the steaming cup, for a certain amount of time, till it achieved just the right amount of moisture to melt in your mouth, and not dissolve in the tea. (If the biscuit dropped and fell into the tea – you of course were a novice, still inexperienced enough to intuit when the biscuit was to be taken out of the tea!)

Family time meant dinners to city restaurants, but another favorite haunt was Balwant Singh’s Eating House located off Elgin Road, which served perhaps the tastiest, Punjabi style cha in earthen pots called bhaad. Life in Hyderabad, which is where I was last living, the dearth of chaiwalas on the city streets hurt the most. It was surprising and strange for me to not find chaiwalas dotting city streets and lanes. The same is true with my brief experience in Bangalore.

My two years at Jadavpur University in Calcutta, doing my masters involved routine trips to the chaiwalas housed at the campus canteens. Milan da as he was affectionately called was our regular, and served cha in the cutting chai glasses. He also had a variety of food items you could choose from. But the chai was something intrinsic to the journey as a student in college or at university. Attaining adulthood was synonymous with the amount of time you spent at a chai thek. Besides, the caffeine and the temperature of the drink certainly helped in making one more alert – readied one for the onslaught of the remaining classes of the day.

My chai-buddy – one enthusiastic and as much a connoisseur of tea as I – was Pooja Das Sarkar. In our two years at university, we explored a number of chai theks, drinking tea, sitting on benches – in the rain, in the sun – dreaming up the future. That was while we were still living in Calcutta. But the chai bond still remains: even though we live in two different cities, whenever we visit each other, the most-looked-forward part of the day is the morning chai and cigarette ritual, with frequent iterations throughout the day.

As I have moved to California for a year on a Fulbright at Stanford University to teach Hindi, the one thing I missed the most was good ol’ Indian chai. I got super excited to see chai-tea-latte (of course the ‘tea’ being redundant in that name) at the Stanford bookstore, and immediately ordered one, much to my intense disappointment. It was nothing like chai or latte! A visit to an Indian store, (ah! Such joy that was) gave me the opportunity to purchase an Indian brand of tea leaves. Often in the evenings when my Filipino flat-mate is at home, I ask her if she would like to drink tea or coffee, and when she says ‘tea’, I am filled with joy! Perhaps I have another convert to Indian chai!

Chai is pretty much the one thing I cannot say ‘no’ to; something which has earned me the distinctive title of ‘tea-guzzler’ by close friends. And ‘tea guzzler’ I will remain – a romance which will last a lifetime – chai and me!


Jalebis, Dahi and Chai Along the Border

Gary Shostak

Since returning from his time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal, Gary has devoted his career to improving the lives of others, working in state government health care and social services. He has returned to South Asia several times, worked with Bhutanese refugees in Massachusetts, and currently volunteers at an English tutoring program for immigrants in Boston.

Gary Shostak fondly remembers tasty moments from his time as a Peace Corps volunteer near the India-Nepal border.

From 1967 to 1969 I lived in a small village about two hours walk east of Birganj, Nepal along the border with Bihar. Every two or three weeks I would leave my village of Jotpur at first light to walk to Birganj for mail and to see other Peace Corps volunteers. I had a favorite chai wallah who also served freshly made jalebis along with really excellent dahi. His roadside shop was always my first stop as I got to Birganj. I shall always remember savoring the sweet and sour combination of dahi and jalebis taken with milky tea while chatting with the chai wallah and his regular customers.