Sunday, September 29, 2013

Chai Wallah: Coming Soon to a City Near You

Photo credit: Arian Zwegers
In India, chai wallahs are everywhere.  Chai is the word for tea in Hindi and a wallah is the person who makes or sells it.  In busy cities like Delhi, chai wallahs call out, “chai! chai!” and sell tea in their make shift cafes at markets, train depos, bus stops, and street corners.  Ritwik Deo, writer for the New Statesman, describes the chai wallah phenomenon, ”The tea-boy (chai wallah) is to Delhi what the cab-driver is to New York.”[1]

Photo credit: Pratheeps
The chai wallah meets the enormous demand for India’s favorite beverage – spiced tea with milk, known in the west simply as “chai.”  Spiced chai is primarily made with black tea, strong spices, and sugar mixed in milk.  Flavors vary but one of the most traditional and well known outside of India is masala chai.  Here in the U.S., when people use the word chai without specifying a flavor, they are usually referring to masala chai.  Masala chai can include spices like cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, peppercorns or cloves, although recipes vary regionally, kitchen to kitchen, and even wallah to wallah.

Will chai wallahs set up shop here in the U.S. to meet the U.S.'s growing demand for tea?  I found these chai wallahs selling in the streets of San Francisco.  The Chai Cart began to sell cups of chai from a bicycle trailer in 2009.  It's about time!

[1] New Statesman, November 28, 2012 -

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Precision Tea Steeping in Indianapolis

“This is your kind of place,” my husband said, “the tea list is longer than the food menu.”  While visiting Indianapolis for a wedding, we had a cup a tea at Tulip Noir, a breakfast and lunch café that Indianapolis's Examiner dubbed an “Indianapolis Tea Temple”[1] and that Indianapolis's Metromix rated as a best brunch spot.[2]
For me, it’s not Tulip Noir’s over 70 varieties of tea that makes it stand out. It’s not their creative blends like “I Dream of Maui” - a green tea with pineapple, mango and blue corn flower or “Almond Oolong” - an oolong with a taste of almonds, or even their “Sweet Peach” - a white tea with a crisp peach flavor. It’s not even its organic, gluten free, vegan and allergy-friendly food and beverages. It’s Tulip Noir’s precision in the steeping time of its teas that sets Tulip Noir apart. I simply had never seen a tea establishment give customers timers with their teas.
When you order tea at Tulip Noir in Indianapolis, you are never left to wonder when the brewing of your tea is done. Each tea order comes with its own hour glass timer matched to the ideal steeping time for the ordered tea. What makes the perfect cup of tea, according to Tulip Noir, is not just the quality of the tea leaves, but the timing of the leaf brewing process. This is why each customer is armed with a timer and the recommended steeping time for their particular tea.
My order of loose leaf black tea (a mix of caramel and lavender, called “Serenity”) arrived at my table in its own clear glass steeping cup along with a 5 minute hour glass timer. I could see the hot water and the tea leaves through the clear glass. “When the timer runs out,” the waitress told me, “your tea is ready.” Among the tables, I could see other tea drinkers had 3, 5, or 7 minute hour glass timers at the ready.
I was mesmerized by the steeping, I could smell the tea flavor strengthening and watch the color of the hot water gradually deepen into a beautiful coppery brown. When the last few grains of sand fell to the bottom of the hour glass, it was time to remove the strainer – this did prove to be a bit messy. But it was worth it to savor the steeping as well as the taste of the tea at its optimal flavor. Shouldn’t we all have hour glasses?
[1] September 12, 2010,

[2] September 12, 2010,

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Tea History Documentary on the BBC

Click image to see a preview.
English comedian Victoria Wood presents a two part documentary about the history of tea. In Victoria Wood's Nice Cup of Tea, Wood travels the world to explore Britain's love affair with tea. She visits chai wallahs, opium smokers, Assam tea pickers and grumpy elephants, and explains how the little exotic tea leaf both united east and west and triggered wars.

This entertaining documentary aired on the BBC in April 2013.  It provides a good deal of insight into the question: just how did tea from China become England's national beverage?
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