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Chai Wallahs of India (npr.org)
155 points by omilu on June 24, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 72 comments

I don't care to know about the gossip or the preferences and peccadilloes of their clients --what interests me about these people (or the "flower vendors" and recyclers in a different way, etc.) of large Asian cities is the perseverance and tenacity of the people to make their own living as meager as it might be.

I was taking a $10 equivalent taxi ride late at night the other day, the driver opened his window at a traffic light and bought some fragrant flowers from a woman selling them in the median at the equivalent of $2. I asked why he would buy those flowers, he said essentially, "I made some money, she needs to make her money and I get a fresh car in return".

There are poor people for sure, but you will not see too many outright begging --they still offer the dignity of exchange of money for something tangible --even if it's tea-eggs on the corner (or in Mexico people peddling junkfood at major bus stops). We seem to have lost some of that dignity, I think. The only think that comes close are the people who try to push you to buy some panhandler advocacy newsletter --I have not seen them in years and that pub was utterly useless.

Oh, you mean in America? Oh, that ingenuity gets you arrested as a youth on the National Mall.



Black youth. At worst, they would've been let go with a warning if they'd been white. FTA: "My kids sell water and everyone smiles at them. These kids do it and get arrested. It IS racist"

You put it nicely. Its a great enterprise they make, there is always a chai wallah at the railway station, office buildings, construction sites. It is also interesting to note College & university students have a cult following for their chai wallah. When alumni visit their alma matter, a trip to the chai wallah is a must.

Reminds me of the paranthewalla (an Indian bread) and maggiwala outside IIT Delhi who certainly had a huge cult following in 2000. He used to be so popular because he was the only vendor in town open at 3am serving hot paranthas to students. Very enterprising guy.

I remember cheddies at iitkgp gate serving maggi & snacks like that. those days the rumor was that cheddies has not been closed since it opened in 80s. anytime you go there you can find another sole having a sudden urge for late nite snacks.

I miss Cheddi's! The tinku left its mark on my psyche, sigh.

The same chai wallahs are quite well-off, you may not know. Please wake up :)

Oh yes, we know of some chai wallahs who make more than the chai drinking IT guys. I know some of them have multiple properties.

You are right. Those chai wallahs would laugh away all these comments.

There are chai wallahs who rent out their properties to the top IT companies in India. I worked for one such company and regularly had tea with those wallahs. Their shops are still just outside the company's premises :)

A friend from Taiwan once said "If you have a blanket, you have a shop." In some ways I wish it was the same way here in Canada. In many respects we are overregulated. That said, I wouldn't want to eat a meal cooked from gutter oil.

Is there a healthy balance?

Overregulated is an understatement. Good luck starting a food business with less than $100K in cash...

/agree. I can't imagine wanting to start a restaurant here. It might be easier to rent a wood chipper to throw your savings into.

You'd probably freeze. ;-)

In all seriousness, I have citizenship in CAN and the US. You seem to do alright. I've never tried to open a business, but some of my relatives own businesses. They mostly complain about taxes, and not regulations.

Reminds me of a chicken taco business on a street corner in Cuernavaca. Live chickens on one end, fresh tacos on the other. Very tasty.

This is something I was feeling nostalgic about when I was a preteen. Nothing new :) Sorry but that's the truth.

Generally I make it for 2-3 people. The following is for one cup.


1 cup Whole Milk 2-3 Cardamom Seeds 1 Cinnamon (Add a small bark, nail length) Raw sugar Breakfast Black Tea (Preferably loose)

Suggested Brands: Mumtaz Tea (Loose Black Tea) - Available at Amazon

1. Crush cardamom seeds and cinnamon, preferably with coffee/spice grinder, do not use the powder form, lightly break apart the seeds and bark, a few taps should suffice.

2. Place 1 cup of whole milk and spices into a small pot, simmer milk.

3. Add 1 tablespoon of tea. Note that this measurement may be different depending on brand. If you added too much, you can balance it out by adding more milk.

4. Add raw sugar, start with single teaspoon, add more as necessary

5. Simmer for 10-15 minutes, milk will slow turn khaki, once you start seeing microbubbles, tea is almost ready.

6. Use a tea strainer or sieve

Minor note: Many South Asians will add a thin slice of ginger while the milk is simmering. Traditionally served with rusk.

For folks who want to try this out, other suggestions for things to try in your chai masala include black pepper, clove, and/or star anise

I'd say black pepper is essential - it gives a little bite at the back of the mouth that complements the ginger (also essential! :) ) perfectly. You only want two or three peppercorns though. Star anise is a great occasional addition, but I wouldn't want it every time.

Wholeheartedly agree. Black pepper is a seemingly strange, but necessary addition. It fills a small gap in the flavor profile between the tea and the spices. My preferred ingredients are cardamom, cinnamon, black peppercorns, cloves, and a very small amount of nutmeg. I like to add 1 part honey for every 2 parts sugar.

It's tough to get the perfect ingredient ratio without making large batches or using a scale.

Whole milk (or cream) is important for the fat content.

In general my chai does not come out as dark as the chai I had in the Pune region, but does have a remarkably similar taste. As I understand it they sometimes make the base the day before. The color difference could be because of my preparation haste, shorter brew time, different ingredients, or adding too much milk/cream.

The chai in India also has a different mouthfeel. I'm not sure if it's loose spices in the brew or if they add something but it feels almost like pulverized rice in the tea.

I personally am fond of the 'Wagh Bakri' brand of masala chai. I'll add candied ginger after milk and the microwave because I'm lazy and don't want to oversugar it.

+1 Wagh Bakri. Reminds me of my mom's tea.

These instructions seemed a little strange to me, until I later read the article and found out why.

> tea using a technique that is unique to the state of Tamil Nadu — frothy milk is pulled with sugar and then combined with black tea that has been brewed separately.

I'm used to this one, and I thought it was the only way until today.

I like to add a couple strands of saffron towards the end of brewing time, also I use half whole milk half water and brew the tea in bags in the milk water mix.

The chai wallahs exist in Pakistan as well and I can relate to many experiences shared in the article. The chai wallah next to our university was a frequent hangout spot.

On a related note few months ago a chai wallah from Islamabad got really famous because of his good looks: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/oct/19/blue-eyed-tea-...

Similar to the discovery and subsequent popularity of "Salt Bae": http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/salt-bae?full=1

Maybe the Internet is ready for "Chai Bae"?

Some great videos of Chai wallahs in action. These guys make my Startbucks barista look like a preschooler.


There's a very similar procedure, with a different recipe, in Singapore:


Yes, as an Indian living in the US chai is one of the things I miss dearly. Also the chai latte etc. one gets at Starbucks & co are a misnomer, they are no where same as Chai.

So as a someone who's only experienced chai in North American Indian restaurants or with my best friend's family (who immigrated from Punjab), I'd love to hear what makes the real thing unique and different!

Is it richer? Sweeter? Less sweet? More bitter? More spiced?

I have no doubt this is a tough question to answer... my understanding is every wallah may have their own masala and so forth.

But I'd love to hear your answer!

Adding my 2c to the other replies:

>I'd love to hear what makes the real thing unique and different!

There is no one unique kind of chai. (Lots of things are less standardized in Indian than, say, some Western countries, like in Europe and the US - though I know there are a lot of variations there too).

A few common ways of making chai that I have seen and had and done myself:

- boil equal amounts of water and milk together, so about 1/2 cup milk and 1/2 cup water per person

- some people add the tea leaves [1] (around 1 teaspoon per person, and in English style, one "for the pot" :) before boiling the milk-water mixture, others add it at the end, after the liquid comes to a boil. Depending on strength of tea wanted, people either take it off the gas immediately, and maybe let it steep for a while, to get a bit stronger, or let it boil or simmer for a bit.

[1] Dust tea is sometimes used instead of leaf tea, but I don't prefer that, though it is cheaper - it tends to make the tea too strong. Can't control the strength as easily, IMO.

Spices (like many others have said in this thread), like pre-made chai masala (not so good an option), or individual fresh spices (common ones are cloves, cardamom and cinnamon, ginger too) can be added while the liquid is heating. The ginger is crushed on a flat stone or using a mortar and pestle to bring out its flavor and juice, before adding it, otherwise it doesn't work.

- Black tea is always used for chai, not green tea.

- Indians mostly (as far as I have seen) drink tea only with milk (made the way I said above, or some variant), not black tea (made with water only), i.e. not the way many Americans drink black coffee.

- Strain using a strainer into cups, add sugar (or add it during the boiling, or no sugar if you wish), and drink it hot. Tall tales while sipping, are optional but allowed.

I've only been as close as Nepal. I've never been to India. Is the chai similar? I have no clue how they made it, sorry.

I've never been to Nepal, but my guess is that there could be both similar and and different ways (from the Indian ways) of making tea, in Nepal. Similar, because India and Nepal have some common cultural background in some areas, and different, maybe because Nepal is near Tibet. E.g. had been reading about those areas recently, and had read that Tibetans make tea with (yak?) butter and salt. Think I read that some Nepalese make it that way too. And I actually tried having tea with (regular cow) butter and salt once, it was not bad :)

I don't think it was yak milk. I've had that. I'll be going back. I'll see if I can find out.

Interesting. According to this article, which I just looked up:


they did originally use yak butter, and still do, but increasingly do use butter made from cow milk, since it is more available now. Maybe you saw a case of that.

Update: Just searched again and found a few more interesting links. Also, they (Tibetans) pour the butter tea into their tsampa, also a staple food among them:





Nice, thanks for the link. Mine was always just the tea, it was delicious. ;-)

Boil black tea in water, add some milk and boil some more. Almost always has sugar. Rarely any flavors such as lemon or orange (yikes - totally contra)! Of course you can add spices such as cardamom, fennel seeds, ginger, cloves, mint, tulsi - but you will try these variations at home - they do not do starbucks like pick and choose when you are drinking tea outside with chai wallahs - they will have their own picks or use a pre-mixes masala.

The chai in Starbucks and its friends is a concoction of spices, very little tea leaves and it is all in steamed milk? Quite a bit of difference between boiled water tea and steamed milk (which is also quite richer).

Here's one way on how to make some authentic masala chai.


Loose black tea, cardamom (I don't crush them), Cinammon (bark preferred), and clove. Mix 1:1 water and milk (2% or whole) or just go with less water if you like that. Medium heat so it doesn't burn The problem with stores is that they aren't fresh ingredients and there's too much sweetener and other garbage. I find powdered Cardamom and real green cardamom pods to be completely different tastes.

I put cardamon in hot water and it blows the minds of colleagues. This is in China, just tell them it is a different kind of tea.

It would be different from place to place. In Bangalore you get a milky thick tea while in my coastal town its more watery liquid. Not a liker of masala tea, don't think its too common down south.

It is worth mentioning that coffee is much more popular than tea in Bangalore (and other cities of southern Karnataka) in most middle class joints. However on the streets, tea still rules. Probably because cheaply made tea is more palatable than cheaply made coffee.

South India is coffee country (although you still get both). I'm a Tea fan (addict?) but filter coffee is also something I really like (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_filter_coffee).

Interesting! So down south it'd more commonly be just milky, black tea with sugar?

No, you can get tea flavored with spices (added while making the tea, not during production of the tea leaf), in the south too. Ginger and cardamom are more common though, IME. See my other reply.

From my recollection, the real think is much more aromatic.

As with everything in North America, that Starbucks (and elsewhere) shit is sugar and other stuff and comes either prepared as a powder or syrup.

What lovely pictures, such a colorful and unique country.

In Kolkata the Chai often comes in little clay plots almost like mini flower pots called 'bhar.' They are meant to be disposable. And I saw many people break them on the ground when they were finished with their tea.

Here's a nice short read about the tradition if anyone is curious:


In Hindi these are called "kulhaR", and used to be found in railway stations all across British India before 1947.

Interesting, I wonder why the tradition is largely confined to West Bengal now?

It's not only in West Bengal. Tea was still sold in kulhars (kulhads) in North India (from say Madhya Pradesh and up north) some years ago when I used to travel more in trains - this was decades after Independence in 1947. Apart from the disposable factor, I guess another reason may be that the clay pot keeps the tea warm for longer - and it can get pretty chilly in North India in winter, though not quite comparable to more northern countries. It even gets quite chilly in say Maharashtra (south of Madhya Pradesh), more in the interior areas away from the coast, in winter.

Nice article, but they're missing one (the most?) quintessential Indian chai experience: the chai wallahs on the trains. Waking up to the chant of "Chai, chai, chai garam" (Tea, tea, hot tea) and having a clay cup of sweet, hot, milky tea on board is about as Indian as it gets.

The first time I heard the term chai wallah was in Slum Dog Millionaire — the game show host used it (somewhat disparagingly) to refer to Dev Patel's character.

Another interesting take on tea (in India) is the rather strong tea you (used to) get at Irani restaurants in India. They boiled it for a long time, is why it was strong. There is a community of Iranians (not Parsis) who had come to India several (maybe a hundred or more) years ago, and settled here. Some of them started a typical (for them) kind of restaurant(s) - with bent rosewood chairs, marble-topped tables, mirrors on the walls, etc. There are (mostly were, now, sadly) a sort of institution in India. College kids, working people - both blue- and white-collar, oldsters meeting to chat and gossip, all kinds used to hang out at those places, have the famous / standard items (apart from their unique take on tea) like bun + butter / brun + maska, omelettes, samosas, khari (a dry baked wafer), etc. The younger generation of them unfortunately didn't want to continue the businesses, plus the restaurants were often situated in central areas in Indian cities, so had high real estate value, so many of them have been closed and the spaces sold to Barista, Pizza Hut and the like. A loss ...

Used to hang out regularly at such places in school and college days.


They were very correct in their dealings, and wouldn't tolerate any crap from anyone - customer, supplier, etc. - would bawl them out immediately (including with curses sometimes), which was part of the charm of going to such places.

Ha ha, interesting thread, will check out the article too.

Coincidentally, I was just reading about Masala Chai, recently, got reminiscent, and and that prompted me to start making and drinking it again, after being a coffee and herbal tea guy for a long time :)


Incidentally, US guys (some of you anyway), it's not called "chai tea", just "chai". Both words mean the same (in Hindi and English respectively), so "chai tea" is redundant. Had heard some American colleagues using the former term in a company I worked at earlier.

Here is one method to make Tea:

1 - Take cardamom or ginger or both, and put it in 2 cups of water. ( No need to grind ginger )

2 - Warm the water till it boils, till 30 minutes.

3 - Add Chai to boiling content & basil leaves.

4 - Wait for 5 more minutes, take out the content, filter out the contents, add honey+ lemon to the filtered content.

5 - Drink..

No milk and no sugar.

Do not grind the ginger, this is important, the tea will become too bitter if you grind it.

30 minutes is a bit too much. Just wait till it boils.

If you're in / near San Francisco and looking for great chai, definitely stop by one of the Chai Cart spots; there are a few on Market:


(I have no affiliation with them, just a fan of their chai and want their business to succeed!)

There are few startups as well in India banking over Chai with lots of VC's money pouring in.

Some health concern about Chai:- 1. Lots of sugar. 2. Use of Aluminium utensils.

2) is not a valid concern. Unless you are planning to melt the cookware down, trepan yourself and inject the melted aluminum into your brain, you should be fine:


Fun fact: Current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (who incidentally meets President Trump for the first time this week) was a "chai wallah" in his younger days at some train station.

The term "chai wallah" was used as a jibe against Modi by senior Congress politician Mani Shankar Iyer but the people of India chose the chai wallah instead of the "crowned prince" of the Nehru-Gandhi family with a thumping majority.

Despite being a democracy India has been ruled by the Nehru-Gandhi family (via the Congress Party proxy) for more than 60 years since its independence in 1947.

Factually incorrect.

This is not the first time that a non-Congress party has been elected to power in India. The NDA government was in power during 1998–2004, a period including the Kargil war. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bharatiya_Janata_Party#NDA_gov...)

Modi was not a chai-wallah. His father owned an unregistered tea-shop at a railway station. (http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/No-official-record-...)

The activist who asked about tea selling asked a fake question.

The activist does it all the time.

Also, Modi never claimed he was registered to sell tea.

Had the Congress government been so proactive in 55 years by mandating registration of tea sellers, India would be much safer, more cleaner, and less corrupt.

Fun fact : That activist is from Congress party.

Another fun fact : Such activists do not disclose the exact wordings of the RTI query, they intentionally post ambiguous queries and use the reply to create sensational headline.

I can challenge any of the Modi haters to share their exact RTI queries before they make sensational headline

> RTI query

What's that?

Right to Information similar to Freedom of Information in the US


Ahh thanks.

> asked a fake question

What does this even mean?

> The activist does it all the time.

Do you have a source for that activist's history of RTI requests?

> Also, Modi never claimed he was registered to sell tea.

So, he claims to be an unregistered tea-seller? Because that would make him a tax evader. (http://www.hindustantimes.com/india/modi-talks-development-r...)

> Had the Congress government been so proactive in 55 years by mandating registration of tea sellers, India would be much safer, more cleaner, and less corrupt.

The Congress is incompetent, no doubt. But does that absolve Modi of tax-evasion now?

> Fun fact : That activist is from Congress party.

Sure. What difference does that make to the outcome of the RTI request?

> Another fun fact : Such activists do not disclose the exact wordings of the RTI query, they intentionally post ambiguous queries and use the reply to create sensational headline. I can challenge any of the Modi haters to share their exact RTI queries before they make sensational headline.

The article says "A Congress supporter and social activist Tehseen Poonawalla, had sought information under the Right to Information (RTI) Act from the railway board about whether there was any record, registration number or official pass issued to Modi allowing or entitling him to sell tea on trains and at stations." I don't really see how the wording here could be ambiguous, but I'd be happy to read an explanation.

I know there are plenty of political shills on online forums, but I think it's our collective responsibility to hold political leaders to high standards of virtue, like truth, something Narendra Modi has been fairly inconsistent with.




Here is the video of David Cameron taking a Jibe at Mani Shankar Type people.


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