A Break from the Office Grind

Vidya Mahadevan

Joint MBA-MA candidate at University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and Lauder Institute in International Studies with a focus on India.

If anyone knows about the diversity of India’s chai culture it is Vidya Mahadevan. She attended schools across 5 Indian states, has lived in a few more, and picked up 6 languages (excluding English) in the process. She’s currently in Philadelphia getting her MBA from Wharton and MA in International Studies focused on India from Lauder. But while the City of Brotherly Love has plenty of degrees for Vidya, it’s unfortunately lacking in chai wallahs. Here’s an anecdote she submitted, the latest entry in our Chai Diaries notebook:

This was back in 2008. I was working out of Bangalore, India for a large multinational bank based out of the US. As one would have guessed, my job inevitably required me to work until late in the night almost everyday. We, like several other multinational giants, were stationed in ITPL in Whitefield, one of the best and high-end tech-parks of the Bangalore, the Technology Hub of India.

At the back gate of this ITPL’s campus there were several chai walas selling “cutting chai” for Rs 3 to 5 from their small mobile shops which were called “tapri”. They operated until very late in the night and always served hot “elachi chai” and “adarak chai” in small plastic cups. Many who stepped away from their desks for smoke breaks preferred to enrich those breaks with a cup of cutting chai.

One could find several IT and finance professionals, clad in their formal clothes and suits enjoying their small cup of tea over friendly chats and deep and thoughtful conversations. I used to wonder several times- What makes people frequent these tapri ‘s so often? We get the best Café Coffee Day coffee and tea in our offices and that too for free, then why do we still feel the need to grab a small cup of cutting chai every day?

I think I also knew the answers to my questions very well. These chai breaks helped us switch off our professional brains for a while and get out of our highly intense work zones. Personally, these chai breaks also allowed me to be myself for that brief span of time. I enjoyed going on these breaks alone, lost in my own thoughts and with some time in my hand to observe the life around me. Most importantly, owner of one of the chai tapri’s that I frequented very often recognized me very well and always greeted me with a beaming smile and warm words of welcome. Whenever I have had a really long day or was stressed out, she used to figure that out that just by looking at me and ask,”Kaisa chal raha hai sab kuch, Didi, bahut kaam hai kya? Chai doon?”

Those few warm and caring words and hot chai would brighten my day, instantly!

Pictures from Sonu’s chai stand outside a corporate office complex in Gurgaon, Haryana.

Special Treatment in a Paper Cup

Shandeep Sharma

A product developer and account manager at a Silicon Valley tech start-up.

Today’s Chai Diaries entry comes from Shandeep Sharma, a product developer and account manager at a Silicon Valley tech start-up. Life would seem pretty good for Shandeep. But there’s one thing missing from the Silicon Valley — chai wallahs. He sent in this memory of a favorite chai wallah from his childhood.

During winter holidays my family and I would visit our relatives in Gwalior. We would take trips to the city center (“Sudder” street) and have Kashmiri chai. This chai never tasted as good in Singapore where we lived, and I would rarely have it there since it was too hot for the temperate climate. Plus my parents didn’t want me developing a caffeine addiction.

The great thing about the chai wallah we went to was that he was my dad’s primary school friend and would give us “special” treatment. I’d get my chai in a white paper cup with extra pistachios because he knew I enjoyed the added texture. I would sip it very very slowly — savoring it as much as possible. As we drank our chais by the roadside, I would hear stories of my dad when he was my age while he reminisced with his chai wallah buddy.

Shandeep Sharma contemplating chai under the Manhattan Bridge

Shandeep Sharma contemplating chai under the Manhattan Bridge

A Tribute to the Wallahs

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.

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The Taste of Kashmir in Queens

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

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.”

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Everyone seems to have a chai story. As soon as we tell people we’re writing about India’s chai wallahs, they almost always begin to wax nostalgic about a favorite chai wallah or memories of a profound conversation with a new friend made over a hot cup.

These stories are too good not to share, so we’re launching the Chai Diaries series. These posts will feature stories we accumulate of memories made over chai. We would love to feature your tea tale — if you have one, please share it by filling out this form!

Tea stall ink drawing, 1984 by Walter Ordway

Tea stall ink drawing, 1984 by Walter Ordway

Downtown Dhaba Chai

As our date of departure nears, we have been dealing with the logistics of picking up and moving halfway across the world for the foreseeable future.

Tata India map

Constantly cleaning the apartment to secure that elusive responsible, clean and sane subletter? Check.

Nonstop studying of YouTube tutorials, DSLRs for Dummies books and dpreview.com comments to learn how to take stunning photographs of the chai wallahs we meet? Check.

Scrambling to stay on top of our website, Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram, and WordPress accounts – and accidentally deleting essential HTML code along the way? Check and check.

Amidst the madness, we carved out time to meet some key players in the Indian diaspora – the Chai Wallahs of New York City.

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