Imagine this scene…the streets are jammed with colorful food stalls, vendors calling out their tasty treats, and warm, fragrant smells of sizzling spices. Though it’s early morning in Kolkata, India, the air temperature is already sweltering. Among the meandering masses, one stall has attracted a gathering.
Taste and Toss
As I approach, I notice the vendor ladling out a silky, steaming brown liquid into small, raw clay cups. Customers buy their tea, sip the vessel dry, and then finish by tossing it unceremoniously to the ground where it shatters. Only after witnessing this process did I notice a growing collection of dusty shards of red clay alongside the tea stall and street.
The Work of the Chai Wallah
Chai wallahs, or tea sellers, dot every street corner in every part of India. Their tea may be prepared and served from a fixed kiosk, a rolling food cart, or a makeshift tent. Sometimes a single person may even roam the streets carrying a giant, hot teakettle and a bucket of clay cups. No matter how they present their tea, chai wallahs are truly iconic of Indian culinary culture. Introduced during 19th-century British rule, tea is India’s most popular drink — the country consumes 837,000 tons of it every year! India is also the world’s second largest producer of tea, with 70 percent consumed within its borders.
The Taste of Chai
This traditional Indian beverage blends black tea with steaming milk and warm South Asian spices such as
- black pepper
The particular blend of spices varies from region to region. Vendors typically create their own distinct blend to prepare for thirsty customers. Families might also make their unique recipe at home or at work and consume multiple cups (paper or clay) throughout the day.