People often ask us where to get the best Indian food in New York. The real answer is probably in the homes of immigrants who use their own recipes and sprinkle in a hint of hospitality.
Roni Mazumdar, owner of The MasalaWala restaurant in the Lower East Side, agrees. He aims to replicate that homemade taste for every item prepared in his restaurant’s kitchen. This includes the masala chai, made in fresh batches to order by Roni’s father Satyen, who introduces himself to diners as Mr. MasalaWala.
Manhattan has its slices of South Asia – Curry Hill, Curry Row in the East Village, and dhabas scattered across the island. But to fully immerse ourselves in New York’s chai culture, we trekked to Jackson Heights, Queens, the heart of the city’s South Asian community. Descending the steps from the 7 train, you might feel like you were dropped off in the middle of Mumbai – and saved the airfare! Surrounded by sweet shops, sari stores, sidewalk astrologers, and halal butchers, we knew we had come to the right place to find some of the best chai wallahs in New York.
Under the 7 train
Tinny Bollywood music drifted out of a roadside chaat shop and the smell of samosas frying filled the hot, sticky air. We bumped into a six-foot sardar pitching palm reading services. The only future we were interested in at the moment was where we were going to find the best chai in the neighborhood. Without hesitation, he directed us to Al Naimat Restaurant & Sweets at the corner of 74th St and 37th Ave. Twirling his wiry white mustache, he promised their chai was “Sab se acchi.”
In Hindi, a wallah is someone makes or sells a certain good. Chai means tea. A chai wallah is person who makes or sells tea—or both! But in India, chai isn’t simply tea, a hot drink made with water and leaves. Nor is it a “chai tea latte,” the popular beverage sold at coffee chains that is often made from a concentrate. Chai wallahs in India brew their chai fresh all day, every day. They usually use black tea, ginger root, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, black pepper, and many other spices depending on the region. Since the British helped popularize tea in India, chai wallahs have been setting up stands throughout the country and caffeinating the population, one small cup at a time.
India’s chai wallahs are a constant, unifying presence in a profoundly diverse country -from the deserts of Rajasthan to the seaside megacity of Mumbai to the call centers and factories driving India’s economic rise. Chai wallahs can be found in cities, in villages and on the trains connecting them. In a market or on a roadside, chai wallahs are never far away, bringing customers together from different walks of life around their small stands.
The local chai stand often serves as the gateway to a community and dropping by one is the perfect way to gather the pulse of a place. People gather to discuss everything from politics to cricket or just to meet their friends and break up the daily rhythm of life.
The same way New York cab drivers might be able to tell the story of the city through their interactions with customers, chai wallahs can tell the story of India in all its complexity.
Zach and Resham lived in India from 2010-2011 on Fulbright Fellowships. They are returning to write a book on chai wallahs around India. In a country with tremendous diversity, chai wallahs are a constant presence, from urban slums to rural villages to the call centers and factories driving India’s economic rise. The same way New York City cab drivers might be able to tell the story of the city through their interactions with customers, chai wallahs can tell the story of India in all its diversity and complexity.
Speaking about our project on India Talks TV, April 2013
Celebrating India’s win at the Cricket World Cup, Delhi, 2011
Preparing to dance garba at Navratri celebration, Ahmedabad, 2010