In India, chai wallahs are most often heard before they are seen. Shouts of "Chai, chai" rise above the din along busy city sidewalks, on corners, and in train stations. Each cup of chai costs about a nickel, and for that small sum, the tea peddlers prepare and serve earthen cups full of Masala chai, a spiced drink thickened with cream and sweetened with honey.
Part social institution and part ceremony, the making of chai varies little from wallah to wallah, who typically travels with a sort of portable kitchen that usually includes a miniature stove on which the chai is cooked.
Rapidly and with minimal fuss, the chai wallahs mix each serving hot and fresh on the spot. With a deftness that comes from performing the same task again and again, the chai wallahs blend the warmed milk and strained, spiced tea by briskly pouring the liquids from one pan into the other—it is a point of pride that not a drop is spilled in the process. The frothy rust-colored beverage is then served to customers in cups called kullarhs, which are made of native clay and usually fired over the same flames used to prepare the tea. Once the chai is consumed, the kullarh is discarded on the ground, returned to the earth from whence it came.
This daily ritual plays itself out over and over in India, where "chai breaks" are frequent, and the beverage is all but a symbol of the country's famed hospitality. Though its beginnings are somewhat shrouded in mystery, the most-repeated tale about chai is that a royal member of the courts of India and Siam "discovered" the fragrant brew some 5,000 years ago and guarded it as part of his treasure.
Today, chai is a leader in the tea industry, its popularity swelling in American and European tea- and coffeehouses. According to one study, the sale of chai is estimated to have jumped by a startling 82 percent in one year, with chai available in bags, bottles, and loose blends. And though similar to the exotic beverage so beloved by India, the American version tends to favor a blend of the sweet spices used for Masala chai—ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves—while eschewing the savory spices that are traditionally used in India—peppercorns, cumin, and even fennel.
Though sumptuous in almost any form, chai is unmistakably better when made fresh at home, and doing so is far less difficult than it sounds.
Start by choosing your spices of preference—a mixture of sweet and savory is most authentic—then gently blend the mix in a spice mill (the mix can be stored for later use). To brew by the cup, use a heaping teaspoon of spice blend and about six ounces of water. Bring to a boil in a heavy, stainless-steel pan, then add a heaping teaspoon of loose black tea. Steep the amount of time most appropriate for the chosen tea, and strain into a warmed cup or mug. Top off with steamed milk or cream, and sweeten to taste with sugar, honey, or, for a more decadent drink, sweetened condensed milk.
One sip and you will know why chai remains India's most beloved beverage and teatime tradition, one that no doubt will soon become one of yours as well.