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.


Help in a Cup: Bus Station Chai

Travelling to new places can be exciting. But when the journey involves changing buses at a crowded terminals where all the signs are in a language you can’t read, you could use a helping hand. Fortunately in Indian bus stations, chai wallahs abound and act as de facto help desks when station workers cannot be found. We found ourselves in need of assistance at the Pollachi bus stand in the middle of a ten-hour journey. We had descended from the heavenly hills of Munnar, Kerala where we had been visiting tea gardens and cardamom farms and were en route to Kotagiri, Tamil Nadu where another tea estate awaited us. But first we had to find our bus. A constant stream of buses painted in marvelous colors poured through the station, slowing to a rolling stop as passengers packed in and conductors screamed their destination in nasal Tamil.

Coi, Coi, Coi, Coi, Coiiiii!” It seemed every bus was headed to Coimbatore, not one to Kotagiri. Looking for help and a little caffeine, we turned to one of the station’s chai wallahs, Selu Kumar, who operates a modest stall from which he sells tea, coffee, and an assortment of deep fried vadas.

Having memorized the locations and timings of each bus departure, Selu Kumar pointed us in the right direction and sent us off on the next leg of our journey. But not before he poured us a glass of chai brewed with the trademark technique found throughout Tamil Nadu’s tea kaddais: straining a stream of black tea into the glass, adding frothy milk pulled with sugar, and topping it off with one more touch of tea.


With another hour to go before our bus to Kotagiri and thirsty for more chai, we decided to visit a few more of the station’s chai wallahs.

Bollywood Chai: Behind the Scenes with a Legend

As we entered the gates of Mumbai’s massive Film City, security guards descended upon us demanding to know what business we had there. Just a few yards in front of us was Kareena Kapoor Khan, one of Bollywood’s biggest names, makeup artists fussing over her face. But we weren’t there to see Kareena. We had come to meet another legend of India’s booming entertainment industry – Balwan Singh Negi, who has worked as a spot boy for the past 40 years, serving chai on the sets of upwards of 200 films.

Balwan Singh Negi, who goes by the name Bahadur, has been serving chai on Bollywood sets for the past 40 years.

From behind the scenes, Bollywood’s spot boys keep the industry going. They move equipment on set, keep gawking crowds out of shots, perform odd jobs as needed, and of course, make and serve the chai that gives actors the boost they need to film the same scenes over and over.

When we told security we had come to see Mr. Negi, known affectionately as Bahadur, a guard replied, “Oh, that is a very senior man you have come to see!” We were whisked past Kareena’s entourage and beyond a table with a thermos labeled “VIP Tea,” to the side of a film prop warehouse where Bahadur was stirring a pot of boiling milk.

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Golden Temple Chai: Tea For All

If you’ve ever thrown a dinner party, you know cooking for guests can be a logistical challenge. Imagine cooking for 500,000. That is the task faced by the volunteer chefs and chai wallahs at Amritsar’s Golden Temple, the Sikh religion’s holiest site, on Guru Nanak Jayanti, which celebrates the birth of Sikhism’s founder.

The langar, or community kitchen, at the Golden Temple serves free food to anyone who visits the glimmering shrine, from pilgrims to tourists to locals in need of a hot meal. On on average weekday, about 80,000 people eat in the langar; on weekends, close to double that figure. But on Guru Nanak Jayanti, an estimated half million diners descend on the langar.

Every 15 minutes, a new group of diners enters one of the langar’s vast halls. They take a seat on one of the mats laid out in neat rows and watch as their steel thalis are loaded up with dal, vegetables and rotis by one of the many volunteers constantly marching down the aisles looking for plates to refill. After eating their fill, diners toss their plates and bowls at metal shield-wielding volunteers who deflect them into buckets bound for washing.

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Heartbreak and Happiness

Ana Stern

Former Education Manager at The Akanksha Foundation in Pune, Maharashtra.

Not all chai stories have a happy ending. Like many street vendors in India, chai wallahs often lead a precarious existence. Their stands can be shut down by police or the local mafia demanding a bribe, or by the government when it needs to clear space for development.

Ana Stern lived in Pune for nearly three years and became close to her favorite chai wallah, who faced eviction and an uncertain future:

Unfortunately my favorite chaiwala disappeared when the government decided to clean up the streets. One day they just started knocking down roadside stalls. I wanted to cry. My chaiwala’s partner was walking away with a slab of sheet metal, said that was all that was left, and bye. Later in June I ran into my chaiwala trying to find employment at a mall. It was heartbreaking to listen to his story. He really did have the best chai ever.

Ana also shared a more uplifting story about Yatin, her friend and chai guru.

On a happier chai note, my friend used to come to my house and teach me how to make chai properly. I would lay out all of the ingredients when he said he was close by and then get called a good student. For fun we would namaste and bow when he walked in and I would greet him with a, “hello chaiguru!” We would then proceed to the kitchen where he would call me a great student for laying out the ingredients. It was always amazing. Occasionally I would make the chai before he came over and it was never quite as good. Just once I got a “bahut acha” from him and it made my day (that and the great chai). When one of my best girlfriends came over she would tell me that the way I made it is all wrong. Although I listened to her for all other cooking advice, I will only follow my chaiguru, Yatin, for chai.

Ana Stern with kids at The Akanksha Foundation where she worked as education manager

Ana Stern with kids at The Akanksha Foundation where she worked as education manager

A Hidden Treasure Among Jaipur’s Palaces

Fiona Caulfield

Founder of Love Travel Guides, Fiona Caulfield believes that "Falling in love with a city is just as exciting as falling in love with a person. Your senses become more engaged and you simply feel more alive."

Today’s Chai Diaries entry comes from reader Fiona Caulfield, founder of Love Travel Guides. Fiona’s criteria for what makes it into her guidebooks is simple: “Does this entry help you fall in love with this destination ? If yes, then it is in; if no then, it is out.”

Fiona’s favorite chai can be found in Jaipur, Rajasthan’s Pink City, famous for jewels, leather, and now chai wallahs!

Sahu Chaiwalla

365 Chaura Rasta (adjacent to the Shah Bldg). Daily 5 am – midnight.

The search for the best chai took some doing, but early one morning I found this small stall, which has been run by the same family for over 40 years. Their chai secret is the slow cooking of the milk on a coal stove and a cup costs a mere R10. Many regulars spend double the cost of the chai to travel here to have their morning cuppa. Stand on the street near the stove or step down into the café, which has a few tables.

Birds in flight, Jaipur, 2011

Birds in flight, Jaipur, 2011

Back to School: Returning to My Favorite Chai Walli

Homer had his Muse. Dante had his Beatrice. Jay-Z has Beyonce. I have Jhumka Auntie.

My inspiration for writing about chai wallahs is a 5-foot tall Nepali woman who brightened every day for me during the year I taught English at Nav Yug School Peshwa Road on a Fulbright Fellowship.


The students made me laugh. The teachers made me fat. But it was Jhumka Auntie who made me feel at home and kept me going each day with her warm smile and warm adrak chai.

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