I have spent a little over two weeks in India, half of which was spent self-quarantining at home. The remaining half was when I started exploring. The exploration, of course, included journeys near and far, but what remained a constant and marked all these journeys were my trysts with chai.
I like chai. I enjoy my daily cups of this concoction&mdashnot so much to call myself an addict, but enough to scout for it and the variations that come with it when I am on the road. While different upmarket shops have made it convenient to get hold of chai even in the malls, I am more into tea stalls that punctuate street corners, where old regulars sit for hours on end flipping through their newspapers.
The concept of chai is a recent innovation. Some are surprised to learn that before the British introduced tea to us, we Indians did not really drink tea. The tea plants were first planted in the eastern hills of India by the British with the purpose of exporting this fine variety of tea to the UK. However, the tea board struggled to get us Indians to drink tea leaves boiled in hot water. To make tea more palatable to our taste, the board ran a campaign to promote the cheaper variety of black tea, which was then mixed with milk and sugar to prepare a cooked tea that we started calling chai. In the last 50 years or so, this chai has become what coffee is to the West&mdasha social lubricant, a much-needed energiser, a drink of the masses.
While a drink so seeped into our memories calls for an exactness of experience, this time, I was willing to experiment. And what better place to experiment than the roads in India The highways of India provide a perfect canvas to try new foods. Moreover, as one crosses state boundaries, the flavours merge giving way to unique combinations. One such innovation I stumbled upon, on National Highway 44, was &lsquotandoori chai&rsquo. Simply put, to prepare tandoori chai, an earthen cup is placed in a glowing hot tandoor using iron tongs. When the cup is amber hot, sweet milky chai is poured in, which then sizzles and froths over. This chai is then poured into another earthen cup&mdashand the process gives the beverage a nice earthy and smoky flavour.
The spirit of experimentation brought me, then, to the chai shops that have recently popped up in the markets of Chandigarh. Specifically, the Sector 36 market offers two pop-up bars that serve tea laced with multiple unexpected flavours. One of the shops offers a &lsquochocolate chai&rsquo that comes with a dash of liquid chocolate floating on top of it. The other one offers a &lsquorose chai&rsquo which comes laced with the flavour of Rooh Afza. My favourite one, though, was the &lsquopaan-flavoured chai&rsquo that served as a reminder of the paan-flavoured candies we used to eat as kids. My mind refused to believe that those flavours could be transferred to a hot chai as profusely as these chai shops had managed to do, but the truth was that these innovations worked.
I found these chai shops to be uncharacteristically crowded for most hours of the day, populated mostly by youngsters that had made this a favourite hangout spot even in these COVID-marked days. It served as a reminder that despite the rising number of cafes in this country, it is chai that this nation is in love with. Moreover, these chai shops, though in infancy, can only be expected to rise in popularity given the love they seem to be getting. And that&rsquos a good thing, for this nation of a billion plus is finally willing to let loose its iron grip on its favourite drink and make space for innovation.
These next few years will provide an interesting window to observe how these experiments with chai play out, and how the popularity of these concepts evolve from a few pop-up counters to a wider, industrial scale. It&rsquos absolutely a space to keep an eye on