A nice cuppa chai (चाय)

“Chai” is the Hindi word for tea, and you’d better learn it if you’re going to India. It’s the national drink, though in South India coffee takes precedence, and can be terrific.

Chai is variable, of course, but my favorite is the kind served on trains, which used to come in one-use unglazed pottery cups that would impart an earthy flavor to the drinks. The cups were disposable and biodegradable, and also a symbol of the kind of hand labor that Gandhi favored with his “spinning wheel” campaign. Sadly, they’re being replaced with plastic cups that are NOT biodegradable, and so the train tracks are littered with plastic. On the other hand, the cups were earthenware because labor is cheap in India; a pottery cup of chai would cost at most a dime.

At any rate, chai is always made with milk and sugar (and, if you’re lucky, cardamom, cloves, and ginger); it’s a restorative drink, and, since the tea is powdered or cheap, it’s not a connoisseur’s drink.

But some people, like this chai seller in Madurai, take great pride in how they prepare chai. A true Tea Man prides himself on the Long Pour, which mixes the milk and tea and also froths the milk. That pour is essential.

Now this is a cuppa!

This guy is really good at the obligatory Long Pour, and adds a full twist for 9.5 out of 10.

And here it is in Delhi. This is so evocative for me. And how can you not enjoy the tea even more when watching it made is such a show? I’m sure this guy is locally famous—look at the customers. I think I heard “do (pronounced ‘dough’) rupee” as a price, which is “two rupees”: about 3 American cents.

If you want to make good chai at home, this video will show you how.


  1. Posted August 27, 2016 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    Great Post, I have stopped using the phrase “In india” as it is such a diverse land that every time I say so am confronted with an exception during my travels. The Long Tea is called “Metre Chai” as you are supposed to pour it from a distance of a metre.

  2. Frank Bath
    Posted August 27, 2016 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    In Britain tea is often referred to by its slang name, ‘char’. A lovely cup of char this!

  3. Christopher
    Posted August 27, 2016 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    Chai, like other Indian comestibles, was love at first taste. Truly a “Where have you been all my life” moment (said in the voice of Barney Gumble from the Simpsons). One day I hope to consume it in it’s homeland, but for now, there are several Indian restaurants (not trendy american coffee houses who serve that boxed garbage they claim is chai) from which I can sip what I hope is a passible version of the real thing.

  4. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted August 27, 2016 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    When I go to Indian restaurants, I usually also order chai, as it is very good and unlike any other drink I know. I do not know if it should be better, as I have nothing to compare it.
    Chain coffee houses may serve ‘chai latte’, which is from a pre-mix. I can report that the chain known as Bigby’s makes a pretty good chai latte, but the one at Starbucks? Sewage in comparison.

  5. David Harper
    Posted August 27, 2016 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    I have a colleague from Hyderabad (Telangana). He introduced me to chai.

  6. Posted August 27, 2016 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    I work on a lot of Bollywood movies when they come to the UK. The bigger p[roductions actually bring their own “Chai Wallers” withthem, who do nothing but make Chai for the Crew. That’s dedication.

    • Posted August 27, 2016 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

      Nice observation. That would be chaiwallah, as “wallah” means “fellow” in Hindi. It’s become part of some Hindi names that have derived from people’s jobs. For instance, I heard of one Indian named “Sodawaterbottlewallah” (a washer of soda bottles).

      see https://twitter.com/samas777/status/400628042764398592

      • Posted August 27, 2016 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

        I have just learnt something before going to bed. Thank you.

      • Posted August 29, 2016 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

        But not to be confused with “walla”, which is apparently a sound effect imitating the murmur of a crowd.

        Or with “Walla Walla”, which is (likely) a European corruption of a Native American word used for a placename in Washington. 😉

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted August 27, 2016 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

      Having cited Sgt Maj Shaddup in the previous thread, then it’s good to see the chaiwallah on parade too.

  7. Posted August 27, 2016 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    I love Indian chai. Sometimes, they call it masala chai, if only to distinguish it from english tea. Often, I think it is just tea and masala, and that is good too. I’ve had it pretty much all over India and never had a cup I did not like.

  8. barn owl
    Posted August 27, 2016 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    One of my neighbors in our gardening club taught me how to make Indian chai – he also gave me some lemongrass from his garden to add to the tea leaves while brewing. I liked the flavor so much that I make sure I’ve always got lemongrass growing in my own garden now.

  9. lonefreethinkers
    Posted August 27, 2016 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

    Chai was never a national drink in India, it became a cherished drink after Britain introduced tea into the country.

    • Posted August 28, 2016 at 6:01 am | Permalink

      It is NOW the national drink, not officially, of course, but that’s what you get everywhere. Did I say it was the “national” drink before the British cam in?

      • lonefreethinkers
        Posted August 28, 2016 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

        It is a popular drink, doesn’t make it ‘national’ there are other items which are national but not popular.

    • Posted August 28, 2016 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

      By the same logic, you can deny the British any claim on tea.

      “In 1662, Princess Catherine of Braganza of Portugal married Charles II and brought with her the preference for tea, which had already become common in Europe. As tea was her temperance drink of choice, it gained social acceptance among the aristocracy. Catherine of Braganza’s choice of tea was also instrumental in the popularization of tea in Britain.” (Source: Wikipedia)

  10. dallos
    Posted August 28, 2016 at 2:40 am | Permalink

    “A third form, the increasingly widespread chai, came from Persian چای chay. Both the châ and chây forms are found in Persian dictionaries.[18] They are derived from the Northern Chinese pronunciation of chá,[19] which passed overland to Central Asia and Persia, where it picked up the Persian grammatical suffix -yi before passing on to Russian as чай (chay), Arabic as شاي (pronounced shay due to the lack of a “ch” sound in Arabic), Urdu as چائے chay, Hindi as चाय chāy, Turkish as çay, etc.”


    • Posted August 29, 2016 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

      “Northern Chinese”? What language does that refer to?

      I’m curious because years ago I had a physics instructor collecting etymologies for “tea” in various languages, and he was sure there was the Indo-European via the various names in India and one from Classical (i.e. literary) Chinese, which is of course semi-artificial.

      (Of course almost anything Chinese languages related on Wikipedia seems to get the usual BS about Chinese being one language implied.)

  11. Mike
    Posted August 28, 2016 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    The last one was amazing, certainly puts my boil the water bung it on the tea bag, let it brew for 5 mins then drink it black in perspective.lol

  12. Posted August 28, 2016 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    Does one have to go to a special school to learn how to become a proper whirling chai dervish?

  13. Posted August 28, 2016 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been actually recently introduced to this beverage by a Pakistani neighbour. It’s been an interesting experience, though the its preparation was nowhere near the spectacular performance in those clips.

  14. Posted August 29, 2016 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    I’m not a big tea fan, but it always impresses me how something which starts so simple can be worked up into something complicated.

  15. PS
    Posted September 11, 2016 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    2 Rs for a Chai in this day and age in Delhi would be too good to be a true. What I heard in the video was “2 बटे 4 चाय” (pronounced “do batte char chai”), i.e., “2 divided by 4 tea” which is jargon for “2 real cups of tea, but served in four tumblers, i.e., for four people”. In other words, four 1/2-cups of tea.

    I did see what look like notes of Rs. 10 being exchanged. Rs. 10 a cup sounds like a more reasonable price for Delhi.

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