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A Modern Guide to Chai

Chai tea flight at Chiya Chai in Chicago.

As a boy growing up in the foothills of the Nepalese Himalayas, Swadesh Shrestha loved going to his grandfather’s tea shop. He would sit quietly, sip a cup of milky chai, and watch the comings and goings of the village. Like many a chai wallah, Shrestha’s grandfather did more than just brew tea; he created community. Villagers gathered in the morning to listen to news on the radio, then returned in the afternoon to meet friends and gossip. Some days the shop saw excitement, like the time a man bitten by a snake was brought in on a stretcher. The grandfather, an amateur medic, tended to the man’s wound then went back to making tea. But usually the mood inside the shop was relaxed, with townsfolk lingering over their last sips of tea, rich with water buffalo milk and amply sweetened. “Chai is a drink of happiness,” Shrestha says. “It unites people.”

Shrestha and his brother, Saujanya, have brought that happiness to Chicago. With their wives, they run Chiya Chai in the city’s Logan Square neighborhood. It’s very much a family affair. Their father, who still lives in Nepal, sources and exports Nepalese tea, which he claims is every bit as good, if not better, than that grown in neighboring Darjeeling, India. Swadesh’s wife, Rajee Aryal, develops spice combinations that range from traditional ginger-cardamom to out-there variations like turmeric curry, horchata or maple banana. A warm mood suffuses Chiya Chai; people go there to chat and visit and only occasionally open a laptop.

Brothers Sanjanaya Shrestha (pink shirt with wife Nadine Schaefer in brown dress) and Swadesh Shrestha (dotted shirt with wife Rajee Aryal in floral print dress) own and operate Chiya Chai Cafe, 2770 North Milwaukee Ave, Chicago for Imbibe magazine
Brothers Sanjanaya Shrestha (L) and Swadesh Shrestha with wife Rajee Aryal own and operate Chiya Chai Cafe. | Photo by Matthew Gilson.

In India—chai’s birthplace—you may not find many of these variations, but you won’t travel far without bumping into a chai wallah. They sell tea from brick-and-mortar shops, from the backs of bicycles and from alongside footpaths, where they heat kettles over coals on the ground. “The chai wallahs are so integral to their communities,” says Resham Gellatly, an American of Indian descent who spent 2010 on a Fulbright scholarship teaching in Delhi. There she met her future fiancé, Zach Marks, and the two became fascinated by the ubiquity and variety of chai wallahs. “Chai connects the country in a pretty unique way.”

The couple returned to India several years later and spent eight months traveling through the country to document its chai wallahs for a blog and eventually a book. They met a chai wallah who works on a Bollywood soundstage, one who works in a red-light district, and one who’s a published author. “The same people are in the same place every time, and they’re witnessing all these different parts of Indian life,” says Gellatly. “You can see India through their eyes.”

At the Pushkar Camel Fair in Rajasthan they drank camel-milk chai. In Ladakh, the specialty is yak-butter chai, which is fatty enough to keep your lips from getting chapped in the cold, arid climate. Kashmiris drink noon chai, which turns pink from the addition of baking soda. Southern chai wallahs pour chai through a sock filter from high above the cups to aerate it. In Calcutta, which is near the tea-growing region of Assam, people have strong preferences about the kind of tea used.

Regionality, however, does not always explain the composition of spices in a masala chai blend. That’s up to the person brewing the tea. “It’s sort of like chocolate chip cookies,” says Sebastian Beckwith, co-founder of tea purveyor In Pursuit of Tea. “Maybe my mom puts nuts in them, and yours, allspice. Chai is defined by whomever is drinking it.”

Beckwith, whom Food & Wine once called the “tea detective” for his skill in sourcing from remote corners of the tea-growing world, first fell for the beverage when he was working as a trekking guide in northern India and Bhutan in the 1980s. His career path began over a cup of plain, milky chai. “When you go to India and order a chai, it’s just black tea with sugar and milk,” he says. “There’s no spice in it, or perhaps just a cardamom pod. But in India these things are simmered for hours, which allows the milk to bond with the tea and become very flavorful.”

If you ask for a masala chai, the brewer opens the spice tin to add a bit of this or that. Most Indians have a house recipe they offer guests in their home. It usually starts with a piece of fresh ginger and a crushed green cardamom pod, and goes from there. “Some people like star anise or black and white pepper,” says Beckwith. His house blend contains a combination of ginger, green cardamom, cinnamon and clove. “People love our recipe. It’s the balance of spices that’s important.”

Chai hasn’t always been such an intrinsic part of Indian daily life. In fact, no one on the Subcontinent drank it until the 1840s, when British colonialists established the first tea plantations in northern India. Locals weren’t immediately fond of the bitter brew, but they soon found a way to make it palatable. “Of course, Indians throw spices in everything,” laughs Anita Jaisinghani, “and so masala chai was born.”

Jaisinghani serves a bright, modern take on Indian cuisine at Pondicheri, her restaurant with locations in Houston and New York. Both are open for breakfast with pastries and a masala chai that her guests love so much she’s had recipe cards printed. “The main flavor is cardamom, but we also add cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, cloves and black pepper. You can sweeten it with honey or jaggery [Indian raw sugar] if you don’t want to use white sugar.”

Photo by Eric Medsker.
Chai spices. | Photo by Eric Medsker.

No ginger? Jaisinghani laughs. “Yes! Of course, ginger! I don’t even think of that as a spice. You always throw some fresh ginger in with the tea leaves. The trick is not to boil it for too long once you add the tea, but then let it steep for a few minutes.”

Unlike chai wallahs who keep adding tea leaves, spices and milk to their kettles all day long, home cooks and restaurant chefs usually recommend an attenuated brew time to get the right extraction of tea and spice. Asha Gomez, author of My Two Souths, likes to simmer ginger and crushed cardamom pods in a mix of milk and water for a good 15 minutes to infuse the milk and make it fragrant. Then she adds the tea and lets it steep off the heat for several minutes before pouring and grating a dash of fresh nutmeg over the top. She lets guests sweeten it to their own taste.

Like many Indians today, Gomez likes her tea much less sweet than the previous generation. Growing up in Kerala on southern India’s Malabar Coast, she remembers “cutting chai,” the practice of sharing a cup of potent street chai with a friend, often achieved by pouring half of it into a saucer. Like Jaisinghani, she loves that Indians managed to take both a British tradition and potent symbol of colonial rule and turn it on its head. “It must’ve seemed so sacrilegious to the British, all the things we added to their tea,” she jokes. “Plus, there’s no class in chai; everybody drinks it.”

For Doug Grenawalt, a missionary who spent 18 years in the Punjab region of Pakistan, much of his work took place with a cup of chai in his hand. “The people in our village enjoyed being host to foreigners,” he recalls. “We always got first-class treatment.” In Pakistan that often meant a cup of doodh patti, tea brewed in full-fat water buffalo milk without any water. “It had a strong flavor and was very creamy. Veeeerrrry creamy.”

Like Jaisinghani, she loves that Indians managed to take both a British tradition and potent symbol of colonial rule and turn it on its head.

Grenawalt now manages the South Asian Friendship Center, a Christian bookstore and community center in the heart of Chicago’s Indo-Pak neighborhood. He’s quick to provide all visitors with a cup of strong, milky chai lightly spiced with cardamom, and if they’re interested they can peruse the books written in Hindi, Urdu, Tamil and a host of other languages. Just outside the bookshop, restaurants and bakeries line Devon Avenue, and they all offer chai. Some just have plain chai, others offer the choice of masala chai. At the popular snack shop Tahoora, guests know to look for the chai express line so as not to get stuck behind someone choosing from dozens of flavors of milk fudge.

masala flip
Pondicheri’s Masala Flip. | Photo by Eric Medsker.

Not too far away at Chiya Chai, Swadesh Shrestha scoops a bowlful of loose-leaf black tea from an enormous bin. It contains a mixture of fair-trade teas that his father sources from Nepalese tea farmers. It includes both pebbly cut-and-curled tea, which gives the finished brew a dark color, and wispy tea leaves and buds, which provide fragrance and top notes. Nepal’s tea farms are much younger than India’s, he says, “so the plants are young and fresh, with a different character from Indian tea.”

This tea serves as the base for nearly all the chai flavors, including a take on Himalayan butter tea of which he is most proud. He uses almond butter in lieu of yak butter and seasons the finished tea with pink Himalayan salt. It tastes like a Marcona almond rendered as a salty-sweet love potion. He likes to watch his guests’ faces as they react to the tea. “Chai is the only thing I know how to do,” says Shrestha, who sounds both modest and enlightened when he discusses it. “That chai moment is the one you create. Maybe it’s the beautiful scenery of the mountains in Nepal, or being with friends here.”

A waiter comes with two small glasses of horchata chai, made with rice and almond milks, then dusted with cinnamon. “We should sit and drink this,” he says, though he clearly has little more to say. After a long pause, he finally speaks. “It’s very friendly, very joyful to drink chai. But you can’t do it in a rush.”

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