The clanging of metal pots sounds the call chai chai chai for spiced black tea. Behind it is a tea vendor, boiling black tea with a mixture of spices, milk, and sugar. He represents a class of workers called Chai Wallahs, committed to this popular restorative drink and best known in India for being everywhere at any time.
Barefooted and sporting a stained shirt might not say much, but these men carry a rich cultural heritage that traces back to age-old Ayurvedic spice traditions to the more recent ties with Britain and their famous cup of tea. Even India’s prime minister Modi began as a humble chai-wallah selling tea in train compartments.
Much of the Western world is familiar with the word chai as a sweet and spicy alternative to coffee in up-to-date cafes. But it is in need of reappropriation. The word, chai comes from the Chinese-Mandarine word for tea, cha. The connection lies in the tea trade journeys made on foot from the province of Yunnan in China to the Himalayas and further through the central continent.
Once tea crossed the sea, it quickly picked up popularity in Britain as a rare and expensive treat. The only tea known to the world came from China and it was kept so that no one outside of China had an idea of how it was made. Wanting independence from the high cost of Chinese tea, the British East India Company established tea plantations in the northeastern regions of Assam and Darjeeling in India, to produce tea in masses and turn the country into a big tea party.
By the mid-1950s, India found itself among the world’s largest consumers of tea. Until today a strong black tea, chai is cooked with masala, the essential flavoring agent made of warming spices. Ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, pepper and often many more exotic spices are used. In the name of good health - eating regularly a mixture of heating spices that warms the body remains a core value of Ayurvedic well-being.
Traveling through the country, every chai masala tastes different from the previous one. The mix represents the yield of local spice crops of the region. But what remains is the generous amounts of milk and sugar that roundup the famous chai masala, owing to the British tea-time traditions.
Pictures taken from the travel diary ''Chai Wallahs of India''.