Chai On The Road

I confess to being a bit of a chai snob.

Having consumed flavourful high grown Nilgiri tea at its source for decades, and brewed the propah English way, it would be an understatement to say I am picky about my tea. I detest the thick, sugary, milky cha/chai served in homes across India and when I visit my city-friends (ex planters know better :-)) I am usually expected to make my own tea or opt for coffee.

The flavour of my tea is obviously dependent on the quality of the leaf that goes in, and of late, the tea bags I use, and I even carry my favourite brands with me when I travel.

Mom, who scoffed at my watery ‘phoren‘ brew and dismissed it asΒ ‘ditch water’, was different though. She always managed to turn out perfect tea that varied little in flavour regardless of whether it was brewed from fine packaged dust or fragrant orthodox leaves from the Nilgiris or the stronger CTC from Munnar supplied by my brother in law (also an ex tea planter). We marveled at the consistency of her decoction and after much debate arrived at the conclusion that it was the clear, sweetΒ local water that enhanced its flavour. But my sister jokingly attributed it to the fraying, dismal brown muslin rag mom used to strain the leaves.

We were surprised by how much we enjoyed tea from the chaiwallahs on our road trip across UP last September and in Calcutta during Christmas. With the milk and sugar toned down and just a hint of ‘masala’, we consumedΒ some of our best tea since mum’s passing.

And I swear, the ones using brown stained muslin for strainers were distinctly more flavourful:-)

Tea stall in Malick Ghat Flower Bazaar, Kolkata

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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on

101 thoughts on “Chai On The Road

  1. This post is apt as tea (chai) drinking in India is a favorite ‘pass-time’ πŸ™‚ I feel quite at-home seeing the different Chai picture in their typical settings. Lovely post Madhu.

    1. It is isn’t it? I rarely drink tea outside here in Chennai. This is after all ‘Filter Kapi’ land πŸ™‚ Thank you Dilip.

  2. One of the finest things on my trips to India has been frequenting the chai vendors. You are right about the variations; that to me is some of the charm.

    1. It is. I need to try out chai vendors in South India to see how they compare. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts.

    1. Thanks Sue. I prefer English breakfast in a tea bag. But I love high grown black tea varieties from Sri Lanka and Oolong from China when I can lay my hands on them. Otherwise good old Nilgiri tea begged from friends πŸ™‚

  3. I am not a Tea drinker but the way you describe it and captured the images certainly would make me try it! Delightful post and new look here Madhu!

    1. Thank you Kathryn. I have become quite a coffee addict since I moved here, but I still enjoy a well made cup of tea πŸ™‚

    1. Thank you. The main shot is my first attempt at full manual Angeline. I experimented quite a bit with my camera in Calcutta with fair results, thanks mainly to Manjit Singh who walked us around the city.

  4. I love Chai when done right, and I am… a coffee drinker! Great post Madhu; I love the new look of your blog. I am slowly getting back in the groove of writing, have a ton of projects going on right now! LOL

  5. Loving the views of the food/drinks preparations. I haven’t fully embrace tea. I think it’s because I’m too much of a coffee drinker. πŸ˜€ The only thing that I really like, shamefully, is Chai Tea from Starbucks. 😦

    1. Thanks Rommel. I have never tasted Chai Tea from Starbucks! Shall have to remedy that when I go to Bangalore next. We don’t have an outlet here.

  6. Somehow I expected everyone in India drank flavourful teas. πŸ™‚ Too much milk and sugar definitely spoils the flavour.

    1. Oh no, not in the South at all. But almost all add too much milk and sugar and boil the tea to death! πŸ™‚

  7. I will look for the brown stained muslin when I experience my first chai on our upcoming India trip ( March 15-April 10). This may sound ridiculous, but in our teacher’s lounge where I taught, we decided our coffee tasted better if we never washed out the glass pot. It looked like it was stained for centuries and lashings to anyone who touched it. πŸ™‚ Your photos are so appealing, Madhu. You capture the chaiwallahs and their chai process intimately.

  8. Love your new look, Madhu. The background is really awesome. I don’t usually take milk or sugar in tea, bu, like Rommel, I have to confess that on occasion, I love a Starbucks Chai Latte. πŸ™‚

  9. I have to say I didn’t have a good cup of tea in India, I looked forward to chai but the thick milk and sugar was horrid so I stuck to lassi and water most of the time.

  10. I do love the theme and the background image, Madhu! The story abut tea fascinated me. Americans have become more interested in tea in recent years, but it is not endemic to the culture in the way that it is in other countries. Your photographs are beautifully edited as always. πŸ™‚

    1. Thank you George. Coffee is more popular where I live and in some coffee growing areas in my home state. The rest of India drinks tea. Not sure if it is a colonial legacy. I think it might be.

  11. When traveling, I generally avoid street food, but make an exception for chai when in India. In fact, I have a difficult time passing a chaiwalla without stopping. A chai snob, hardly; a chai lover, you bet.

    1. He he, I guess I had better be a chai lover after marrying a tea planter and living on a tea plantation for over a decade! πŸ™‚

  12. I love Ceylon tea, which is my favourite. My colleague Mandeep says Indian tea is like syrup and he drinks it the British way.

    I buy loose tea from a shop called Whittards in Buchanan Street in Glasgow and when in London buy it from Harrods. Recently I bought a Breville glass tea-making kettle which has a small basket in the centre for the tea leaves. Once the water is boiled, you lower the basket and let it infuse for a few minutes.

    The water in Scotland is lovely and soft and not like the water in London which is hard. I only put milk into tea and not sugar.

      1. Another Indian colleague, Shekhar, has introduced me to Mung Daal and Urdu Deal which are yellow and white respectively.

        Indian food looks very healthy but Shekhar says many people in India have diabetes due to the starch in the rice.

  13. I had a wonderful cup of tea at the Taj Palace Tea Room in Delhi. They actually had a menu the size of a book and the tea was served beautifully – it tasted wonderful!

    1. I have no doubt they have the finest selection for their high tea service. The Tetley (the Taj group owns the brand) tea bags they stock in their rooms are horrid though. I always carry my own tea bags when I stay in a Taj hotel!! πŸ™‚

  14. For me… Shizuoka’s Mattcha, First Flush of end april
    I’m not picky at all πŸ˜€
    Janes is right about the water quality which is very important…
    For the winter time I do love as well the Russian Caravan (which is a blend), or the pure Lapsang suchong with the very smoky taste: I’m a tea freak and in all my novels, inevitably, in some scenes will be served tea.
    Wish you a great week end πŸ™‚ hugs claudine

    1. Oh you take it up to a whole new level Claudine!! I haven’t tasted any of the three varieties. A great weekend to you too πŸ™‚

  15. Madhu, I’m also not a big fan of tea [chai is actually how we pronounce tea in Greek – funny huh?] but your post has made me crave for one! Beautiful post and I love your blog’s new look.
    Happy Valentines and have a beautiful weekend! πŸ™‚

  16. That’s very cool. I would love to go there and try some of the tea from the street places. I’m not that picky about my tea, but I like the black tea with milk I grew up with in Canada. A British tradition, I guess.

  17. Some people have a way with tea, don’t they? Mo’s Rani, from up in the hills could turn any tea into ambrosia, a trick I only managed with mid-grown tea straight from the ‘factory’, when my friend D managed her mother’s estate. Back in Oz, I’m glad for my Dilmah, though something’s not quite right. I think it’s the water! Terrific post with such atmospheric shots of the chai wallas doing their thing.

    PS – this is a handsome theme, Madhu – very swish πŸ™‚

  18. I’ve tried ‘chai’ all over India – especially those with a hint of masala – unique and better than anything we get here in Singapore, I reckon.

  19. Madhu, this is a terrific post. Coming from a traditional tea-drinking culture, I have the habit of taking it for granted… sometimes I even prefer the flavours of coffee instead. I do adore the spices in a Masala tea though. Maybe your sister is right about the muslin rag – we have a well-known ramshackle teahouse here known for its wonderfully smooth milk tea – said to be strained through a silk stocking. Have you tried golden osmanthus? Or lychee red tea? Both are exquisite.

    PS What a great new look – I especially love the background photo!

  20. A few years ago when people asked me whether I was a tea or coffee person I always found it hard to answer. But over time I realized I take tea more seriously than coffee and my tolerance to unsweetened tea is much better than most of my friends. However chai – or teh tarik as we call it in Indonesia and Malaysia – has its own appeal to me. I often have it when I eat out in a restaurant. It’s such a perfect companion to those spicy dishes we have here. When I visit India one day I’ll make sure not to miss chai!

  21. I am glad I finally logged into WordPress weeks of absence to read your post on chai – I’m very particular about my chai too, and carry my teabags with me always! My office is stocked with my favorite chai as well. Love the new look here – don’t know when you changed it. Hope you are well Madhu.

  22. Loved the reference of “chai-snob”. It brought a smile to my face as being born and raised in India, I have a family full of people who consider themselves “chai-snobs”. I have to be very very careful when I make chai for my mom, the biggest chai-snob of all.

  23. Your photos and description are deliciously inviting. I love chai tea. Madhu, I’m not sure how my brew would match up to your standards. But it is wonderful to wrap your hands around a warm cup of tea and chat with friends. πŸ˜‰

  24. I have to say that I think it looks disgusting, Madhu πŸ™‚ The smell of tea quite revolts me (sorry!) BUT you do capture the atmosphere wonderfully well with your photos.

  25. Madhu, I adored this. This is why we blog: to broaden our horizons and learn how people live. your pictures are vivid, and perfectly chosen, and quite wonderful. Thank you.

  26. Gorgeous pics – especially love the terracotta cups – so much nicer than those horrible throw away plastic cups that now litter the streets around the tea houses…love Nilgiri tea, brought back the Havukal – Orange pekoe tea after our last visit from the Nilgiris..I have now become a coffee snob though so tea no longer tastes the same once damaged by the coffee palate..

  27. My girls are masala chai pini wale converts. I could never explain though on a brief Mumbai/Pune train stopover at Lonavala why the garam chai was always tanda and the tanda pani was always garam. Excuse my rusty Hindi, its been quite a while. lol

  28. Oh I know the feeling. It’s amazing. πŸ™‚ One of the best things to have while travelling esp., when it’s winters. Great post πŸ™‚

  29. I love this post, Madhu! Hope you do a couple more πŸ™‚ I think when you add sugar and milk, you don’t taste the flavor of tea, like Starbuck’s Chai tea πŸ™‚ So I began to make my own Chai tea, but Teavana sells MAHARAJA CHAI OOLONG TEA $12 for 2 oz, they mix the tea with other stuff. What will you recommend? Btw, I love, love India flat breads πŸ˜€ I cook indian dishes a couple times a months πŸ™‚

  30. Great photos, it really transported me back to India, I was there a few years back for 3 months and haven’t had a good chai since. :(. I noticed that everywhere we went it tasted different, particularly concerning the spices used (or so it seemed to me). I can’t say where my favourite cup of Chai was. When we were staying in Tamil Nadu and even in Karnataka we were given black Chai with no milk, which was lovely but for me not as delicious as its milky counterpart that we were served in Kerala…..

  31. Despite being English, I’ve never liked tea but maybe I just haven’t tried one strained through brown stained muslin yet! Lovely photos as always. They really do transport me to another world.

  32. What a marvelous gallery Madhu. Better than National Geographic! Thanks for sharing your tea post today as it is snowing here and thinking about drinking it, warms me!

  33. As I miss the cha wallahs as they’re called in Bangladesh. I DO like my cha(i) thick and sugary and not the ‘phoren’ way at all so we’re very different here! πŸ™‚

  34. You create a fine blend of words with images and other senses! I’m A D D I C T E D!

  35. Love the new theme Madhu! Absolutely gorgeous!!!!
    As for tea, I much prefer coffee and your beautiful photo’s. Great shots as usual hon. πŸ˜€ *hugs*

  36. I love chai but suspect I may not have had anything close to that of which you speak. Lovely post Madhu. πŸ™‚

  37. Love this post, Madhu! It has everything. A bit of nostalgia for mom, some info I didn’t know about chai, and some truly wonderful photos. Love the one w the man in blue shorts πŸ™‚

  38. This is gorgeous. A wonderful post and a truly great new theme! πŸ™‚ Congratulatons, Madhu!
    Hugs from the Rhine Vally

  39. First, love the new theme; fits perfectly.

    I am a coffee drinker, likely as picky about my coffee as you are about your tea. I loved this though, the nostalgia and the comparison. Perhaps you should get your own muslin?

  40. You’re making me thirsty!
    I do believe that sometimes it’s the brewer, not the leaves, that make the difference. Your mother just had that special touch (and muslin rag). It’s similar to me making much better coffee than my husband, even though we use the same beans and equipment. You’ve either got it, or you don’t! πŸ˜‰

  41. Ironically, my mother-in-law used to make the best coffee and she used brown stained muslin.
    I guess that was popular during those years.
    I enjoy Chai tea. It’s a nice change sometimes. Glad you were able to enjoy a good cup of chai tea while on your vacation.
    Love your new blog theme. It’s so interesting to loo at.

  42. How did you know I’m a tea lover? I never did acquire a taste for coffee so it’s tea with breakfast, lunch and dinner, and then some. I’m intrigued by the use of muslin. I’m guessing that the more it’s used the better the brew…like a favorite old baking pan?

  43. Aha! So the straining has something to do with it. I’m currently addicted to the Singaporean style of brewing, which involves a “sock” (basically a muslin on a metal hoop) and you might have put your finger on why it’s so appealing. Of course, they fill it full of milk and sugar so it might not appeal to you πŸ™‚ .

  44. The photographs are evocative, Madhu, and make me want to be there. And I love the story! Especially the “fraying, dismal brown muslin rag” and the way you come back to it at the end! πŸ™‚

  45. sadly my only tea is herbal like peppermint or roibos, but I can enjoy the fragrance of other teas, and the splendour of your photos! love the grumpy man cooking his delicious treats πŸ™‚

  46. Street tea is amazing isn’t it πŸ™‚ For a few years I regularly visited one particular chai walah. He got accustomed to my presence and a small cuppa would be ordered without my even asking! I recently paid him a visit after a gap of over a year, and there was not much difference there…

    It’s been a while since I’ve been around these parts too πŸ™‚ and my what a world of difference. Is that background image from Kolkata? Curious to know why its been inverted πŸ˜‰ Looking forward to catching up on the older posts…

    1. You are sharp!! I was just wondering if anyone had noticed that I had flipped the image! πŸ™‚ I wanted the Rickshaw (yes, from Kolkata) on the right. Shall have to see if I can flip those darned Vodafone signs around πŸ™‚

  47. I’m wondering how close Starbucks’ Chai Latte is to the real thing. I usually drink the various flavors of Chai tea from the grocery store (Oklahoma City, OK), and wonder if those various flavors are Americanized or authentic.

    1. With due apologies for responding over a year late Dave: No they don’t come close to the real thing! πŸ™‚

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