A good strong cup of chai tea is one of the things I crave most when waking up in India. Unable to reproduce this Indian drink at home in the US when not traveling, my desire for authentic chai grows tenfold, satisfied only after a few sips of the first cup upon returning to the land of tea. Finding chai, a hot drink holdover from the British era now well steeped into Indian culture, can sometimes be a cat and mouse game depending on my location.
Any hotel of India or guest house you stay at can provide a cup of chai. If they don’t have a kitchen on site, staff will run out into the market and bring a piping hot cup up to your guest room. This is typically from a favored neighborhood chai stall or friends of the proprietor. That doesn’t necessarily mean you will be furnished with a good tasting cup of chai.
Most mornings I rouse before the hotel staff. Ordering and getting that first taste of chai can prove futile. Small mom and pop type properties, where staff work late into the evening checking-in guests, don’t stir until 8 or 9 am. Since most of the guests don’t wake before then there is no need to be waiting for my early morning call. In this case I just run out into the market myself.
Chai stalls are a documentary to be made unto themselves. Each one is unique, the taste from each varies so widely but the interest for me is the stall owner and it’s location. You can always find the latest scoop for the area being traveled from the chai wallah. Stalls begin opening by 6 am, earlier in busy commuter districts and rail stations.
I was surprised to hear a chai stall across from my guest room in a Mandi hotel open at 4:30 am one morning. That chai wallah was serious about grabbing the early worm.
As for the average chai stall…well, you just have to look the other way sometimes. Few stalls if any would pass US health codes so forget your perfectly sanitary idea of Starbucks. Milk is usually left sitting out all day in a metal pot, sometimes covered or else open with flies circling above. Fortunately the milk used is boiled during the tea making process which is why it’s safe to stop at virtually any chai stall. However, there are times when I will move on after entering and looking around an establishment. Maybe it’s exceptionally dirty or they use powered milk instead of buffalo milk.
Expect to pay anywhere from Rs 4 to Rs 8 for a single cup of chai (also referred to as masala tea) on the street. Hotels, restaurants and cafes will charge Rs 15 and up. Skip those places immediately to get a better tasting cup of chai and far superior value in the market or on the roadside.
Traveling by car and driver? Fortunately most drivers share in the need for a early morning or late afternoon sugar laced caffeine rush. Mention T & P for a quick turn off to the nearest chai stall. T stands for Tea (chai) and P stands for, you guessed it, pee. Stop for tea and take a pee. The efficient way of travel in India.
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