The first time I heard the word chai was in Madras, India. I remember the exact location and events that followed. It was the Boopathy Cafe across from the British Railway Station in Euston. I was having lunch with a girl from San Francisco who spent the last few minutes telling me that chai was the most heavenly drink in the world. I learned that it had amazing health properties and was considered to be better than water. I was amazed that I had never heard of this sweet nectar until that very moment in time.
We had convinced our waiter Sammy to bring us some of the “milk tea” as the locals called it. When the tea arrived my companion took a long deep sip and closed her eyes. I half expected her to sigh with contentment but instead she spit tea all over the table. “This is the worst shit I have ever tasted,” she proclaimed loudly as she started to gag.
I looked at my cup of tea and expected to see an eyeball or a finger floating around in the cup. No foreign objects; just a skin that had formed over the top of the tea. I removed this and took my first sip…it was sweet…and something else…I don’t know how to explain it other than this was my first real taste of India.
And thus began my inception into the world of chai.
My adventures took me from Madras to Sri Lanka and then from Thiruvananthapuram all the way to Delhi. I travelled with tea tasters, chefs, locals and even had conversations with many of the chai vendors you find on the streets of Varanasi (like the fellow pictured above).
While travelling on the train I was bombarded by chai sellers yelling “chai chai chai” like an auctioneer as they moved up and down the platform. People would stick their hands out the windows and pull them back with little paper cups full of chai. Traditionally the vendors would hand out drinks in little clay cups that they made themselves. When you were done drinking you would fling the cup to the ground, smashing it and sending it back to the earth.
My nightly ritual included relaxing on the streets with the locals with a chai in one hand and a milk sweet in the other. They would tell me stories or try to sell me post cards or other trinkets. While in Varanasi I spent every evening writing what I saw; pen in one hand and a glass full of chai by my side because it was too hot to pick up.
I enjoyed the chai so much that when I came back to Canada I couldn’t drink the crap you buy in coffee shops: the stuff that is made with syrup and hot water (“…the worst shit I have ever tasted”). However, I recently discovered a small shop close to where I work that makes real chai and milk sweets and I feel like India has finally come to Calgary.