A local-yokel’s take on Chai

Lovely photo of a road side tea shop in Kolkata taken by photographer Anindya Kundu. You can check out his other Kolkata photos HERE

I once drove my mom’s newly washed car into a teepee-sized garbage dump! It happened many moons back in India. My cousin was teaching me to drive a stick shift and instead of reversing I accelerated forward. I could not back out (I must have been paralysed with shock!) and cousin (who is 6ft something) could not get into the driver’s seat to get us out because we both could not open our doors! And, oh mama, the stink! I don’t remember how we extricated ourselves but I do remember after the trauma we badly needed tea and that’s how I discovered the Little Russel Street chai shop.

Popular Hindu deities (Lakshmi the Goddess of wealth and Ganesha the Remover of Obstacles) bless a humble chai shop in Kolkata. Photo courtesy: Debu Chakravarty.

It sits on the corner of Little Russell Street and Middleton Row in Calcutta (now known as Kolkata) undaunted by the boutiques, upscale stores and banks that now surround it. A manky little place it is, dark and sticky with the oil of frying samosas. If you come in the nether hours (the perfect time to drink tea is between 11pm and midnight for Calcuttans) you will see shifty-eyed characters lurking in the dim interior. But worry not folks, Calcutta is the safest and most friendly city in the world.

The Russell Street chai shop attracts the lowbrow and la-di-da alike. Fine folks like you and me don’t step inside. We drink our chai in air-conditioned cars parked on the street. Small chokra boys (tea runners) keep a look out for chai addicts cruising by. All you have to do is roll down your window and stick up fingers to indicate how many cups you want and the chokra boy will  bring it to you. And the chai will always be piping hot, aromatic and lovely.

A chai bhaar has no handles. The best way is to hold it by the rim – you will burn your fingers otherwise! Photo: courtesy Prabhat Sinha

Tea shops in Kolkata have staunchly resisted plastic and styrofoam. They kill the chai experience as any aficionado will tell you. Calcutta street tea is served in terracotta bhaars that give the chai a distinct earthy flavor. Please don’t freak out if you find a tiny mud chip sticking to your tongue! Count it towards the overall experience. And when you’re done, guess what? Roll down your window and drop the bhaar right on the street, with ne’er a qualm. Observe the childish glee you feel when you hear it smash with a satisfying “plok!”. Nobody will fine you for littering. Calcutta folks are not uptight and snarky that way. Besides it’s earth to earth, ashes to ashes: bhaars are Mother Earth’s best friend.

The best chai in India is found outside places of worship: temples, mosques and gurdwaras. To learn more about authentic Indian chai, check out this nice post by Patrick on the CHAI PILGRIMAGE BLOG her.

There is nothing posh about Indian Chai. Chai is village tea: the drink of truck drivers, rickshaw pullers and other yokels. Chai is made from low-grade tea dust (not even CTC or whole tea ) which yields an exceptionally strong brew. To this you add full cream milk, fresh ginger, cardamom and a bucket-load of sugar. You can forget about low-fat, lactose-free, unsweetened and other foo-faa customizations: this aint Starbucks, baby. As for American Chai – that is one twisted eight-legged monkey–somewhat like American yoga– much has been lost in the translation. And no, I am not judging anybody but by golly, sometimes marketing can make you believe purple is blue.

But back to the chai…

You don’t need much to make your own chai. The key ingredients are fresh ginger cardamom, mint (optional) tea bags, milk, water, sugar and a saucepan to boil it all in.

If you want the skinny on how to make a cup of good chai – the way the local-yokels make it, here’s what you do:

(This yields two cups) Take a saucepan and add one cup water and one cup plain milk. Take a half-inch stick of fresh ginger and bash in a mortar/pestle and add to pan. Bring it all to a boil.

When bubbling nicely, add two bags of plain black tea (not decaf and not Earl Grey. Plain regular black). I use this brand of Trader Joe Irish Tea. Lipton Red Label/ Yellow label will all work nicely. (You can substitute teabags with two teaspoons of loose CTC Assam tea if you have some) Also add 4  teaspoons sugar (cringing, are we?) and two green cardamoms (bash these in  mortar/pestle as well). Turn the heat down and let it simmer for a minute. Be mindful, because chai has a sneaky way of boiling over and messing up your stove top. Turn off stove. Cover & steep for 30 seconds. Strain and serve. Add a sprig of mint if you like.

So there you go. Not exactly rocket science, is it? No need to  get yourself in a knot over complicated spices. Complicated chai is for complicated people. I like my chai reg’lar like the truck drivers.

Colorful Indian trucks
A road side Dhaba. Those rope Manjis the guys are sitting on are full of bedbugs!

Talking of truck drivers: the absolute, absolute best chai is served at roadside dhabas (truck stops) around Haryana and Punjab in north India. Here you sit on a rickety rope manji and get bit by a hundred khatmals (bedbugs) all to drink the best chai in the world. Dhaba chai is made from all milk: they use no water at all. Often the milk is thick creamy buffalo milk (Indian buffaloes are not the same as those grumpy creatures in Montana. Oh yeah, try milking one of those!). Buffalo milk is so thick and creamy that if you let a cup of dhaba chai sit for 30 seconds, you will find a skin  will form on  top. Good Dhaba Chai has dum (stamina). After all, this is the chai that keeps weary truckers going long nights and lonely miles. Dhaba chai is heady stuff. A single shot will keep you buzzed and in love with life for a long time.

Some nice touristy bhaars with swirly designs I picked up on my last trip to India.

What is the best accompaniment with chai? Did you say samosas? Biscuit? Cake? Nicht, nicht and nicht. What goes best with chai is adda (chit-chat). Friends chai and adda – is a lovely threesome. And believe me folks, it doesn’t get any better than that.

My cousin’s little daughter, now ten, still loves to hear the garbage dump story.

“Shona pishi, did you really drive my dad into a garbage dump?” she asks me over the phone. I hear the giggle in her voice. “Then what happened?” 

“Then,” I say, “we discovered the best chai.” 



Shona Patel’s debut novel “Teatime for the firefly” is a love story set in a remote tea plantation in Assam, India. You can read more about it HERE.  Shona Patel is represented by April Eberhardt Literary

Types of Assam Tea

ASSAM TEA IS BLACK TEA. There are two  kinds: Orthodox and CTC, both named after the manufacturing process used to create them. (You can read more  about how tea is made HERE) The leaf used from the bush (Camelia Sinesis) is the same in both cases. Quality leaf makes quality tea.There is no way around that. Quality leaf is determined by the pedigree and health of the tea bush and by careful hand-plucking. But like wine, tea manufacture is a fine art involving years of experience, in-depth know-how and often closely guarded secrets. The crucial step in making black tea is to allow the juices in the rolled fresh leaves to darken from contact with the air. Tea makers call this process “fermentation,” although, technically, it is “oxidation.” A similar process occurs when a cut apple turns brown. The dark substances that form while the tea leaves are exposed to the air is produced by the chemical reactions of the tannins in the tea.  The leaf is spread out and left to wilt, losing some moisture, stiffness and much of its weight. Then it’s rolled, exposing essential oils to the air and starting the oxidation process.  When the leaves have transformed sufficiently, then they are “fired,” dried over heat to stop the oxidation process.

Tea tasting in the factory. Historic photo provided by Roy Church

In practice when a factory is running, samples are taken every hour and tasted which may indicate how the manufacturing process needs to be readjusted. Tea Planters judge determine the quality of tea by its bright color and taste. The liquor when left to cool should turn opaque.

Orthodox Assam Tea. Notice the lighter flecks like tobacco called "tips". This is what gives tea its strength and flavor. Tippier teas have higher caffeine content.

GRADES OF ASSAM TEA Tippy” teas have a higher percentage of buds which show up as golden flecks (like tobacco) in the finished tea. The more “tippy” the tea,  the higher the grade/quality. Very ‘tippy’ teas are expensive. Top grade Orthodox is sorted entirely by hand and woolen blankets are sometimes used to further separate the fine golden tips. Orthodox names often have the words “golden” or “flowery” in the description but some names are confusingly common to both methods (Orthodox & CTC) of manufacture.

The four grades of Orthodox black tea are: 1. Flowery Orange Pekoe (the small leaf next to the bud).  2. Orange Pekoe (the second leaf next to the bud).  3. Pekoe (the third leaf next to the bud). and 4.  Souchong (the fourth leaf next to the bud).

TGFOP (Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe) is the highest grade of Orthodox Assam, hand processed in small quantities at the finest plantations. It contains roughly one-quarter tips. The joke among tea aficionados is that TGFOB stands for “Too good for ordinary people.” TGFOB fetches top prices in the Arab world. It is drunk “pure” without milk. Bottom of the barrel are the Fannings and Dust. This is the tea that go into tea bags. Tea Dust is also what is boiled in milk and spices to create Indian street chai, which is a whole different cuppa altogether.

The word “pekoe,” used in grading black teas, comes from the Chinese word meaning “silver-haired.” This refers to the silvery down found on especially young tea-leaves. “Orange Pekoe” is neither flavored with oranges nor especially orange-colored.

“Orange” probably comes from the Dutch royal family, the House of Orange. (The Dutch played a major role in bringing tea to the West, and the Dutch East India Company was the first large tea trading company in Europe.) So Orange Pekoe tea is a fancy grade of black tea, as indicated by the reference to Dutch nobility and the fact that it contains particularly young tea-leaves

CTC tea: a dark fully oxidized tea that give a strong dark brew and has a rich malty taste.

CTC TEA: At the start of the 20th century when tea drinking caught on in the UK,  British tea companies started experiments in Assam and the CTC method invented and used to the increase volume of tea. CTC is the acronym for Crush, Tear & Curl. It describes the factory process used to make the tea which is similar to that of orthodox tea manufacture but instead of the leaves being rolled as a final stage, they are passed through a series of cylindrical rollers with hundreds of small sharp “teeth” that Crush, Tear, and Curl the leaf into tiny little balls.

CTC tea gives double the cuppage for the same weight as orthodox. For example one Kg. of CTC tea yields around 500 cups compared to 250 cups from Orthodox. The quality of Orthodox however is better than CTC as the coarse leaf is discarded at the time of manufacture by shifting.

Pekoe nowadays simply denotes the size of the tea particle. The smaller the particle size the quicker and stronger the brew. Large whole leaf teas tend to brew slower and lighter, and have more subtle flavours than small leaf teas.

Until the late 1960’s, 90% of Assam tea was sent to U.K. (to pay Sterling shareholders). Now it’s the other way round (90% sold in India). This also means that today’s tea standard is much lower than it was. This matter is further complicated by today’s practice of tea being grown on small private gardens who sell  their green leaf to other gardens which in practice means there is little control over quality.

(This post has been compiled from information collected from Larry Brown, Roy Church, Davey Lamont and Ali Zaman: all veteran Tea Planters. I have also used some excellent tea excerpts from Andy’s website www.askandyaboutclothes.com. Any errors/omissions are my own. Please drop me a line if there is anything amiss or if you would like to be credited differently. Thank you!)

Do you have other questions? Shoot me an email and I will ask the experts.

Tea talk on Tea Buddy
What is Assam Tea?
Types of Assam tea: ORTHODOX & CTC
How is Assam Tea Made?
Is global warming changing the flavor of Assam Tea?
What is the difference between Black Tea & Green Tea?