A chaiwala (Hindi: चायवाला) is a person who prepares, sells or serves tea on streets or small roadside shops in the Indian subcontinent. They are an integral part of Indian tea culture. Chai is the Hindustani word for "tea", as in masala chai, and wallah indicates the person performing the task, so chaiwala is a street seller of tea.

Chaiwalas, as an entrepreneurial group, tend to move from different regions of India to run their small business in major cities. They boil a mixture of water and milk, add tea leaves and then strain the tea into containers or a tea kettle. They usually serve tea in a small glasses or unglazed clay teacups (kulhar) but, in the modern era, they have started to serve tea in plastic cups. Traditionally, tea was made in brass vessels. The hygienic safety of tea prepared in this manner is disputed.

Chaiwalas take pride in their chai. After all, making chai is what they do for a living every day, all day long. Many chaiwalas develop a stylized preparation and presentation for their chai. They put a little something special in their blend: a pinch of spicy garam masala powder, a smashed-up nub of ginger — or even a strand of saffron on top — to make it unique and keep their customers coming back. Sometimes it is the performance that sells the chai. Some let the chai boil until an instant before it spills over the side; then, with great agility, they swirl the pot an inch above the flame, suspending it in an almost-boiling-over state before removing it from the heat and repeating the trick. In Kolkata, the “metre-pour” chai, where the chai wallah blends the chai by pouring it back and forth between pots two arm lengths apart, attracts a thirsty crowd.

Most chaiwalas prepare their chai in small batches on a per-order basis. In large cities, however, the chai business is often divided into one central chai wallah, who makes enormous batches of chai, and sellers, who take and fill orders from local shops. For the chai delivery person, the faster he can move on foot through the crowded city streets, the more chai he can sell.

When pulling into a train station in India, the first sound you hear is the ensemble of chaiwalas singing their sales pitch. Breaking chai into two syllables and accentuating the second, “chai-eee, chai-eee,” the chai wallahs make them- selves known to the passengers. You can hang out the window and get a chai to go, or wait for them to come to your seat.

The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, claims that in his youth he worked as a chaiwala for his father, and used to serve tea to the customers of his father's tea-stall outside the Vadnagar railway station. The Indian government while responding to a freedom of information request as to "whether there was any record, registration number or official pass issued to Modi allowing or entitling him to sell tea on trains and at stations". The government responded by stating that no such information is available.

All Indians have a soft spot for masala chai, the sweet and spicy tea which is soothing and spirit-lifting in equal measures. The reason being that these chai-wallahs do one thing and they do it well – they’ve perfected their game by serving up hundreds of cups, dawn to dusk, every single day.

Roadside chai recipe

For two cups:

2 heaped teaspoons of black tea 5 cardamom pods, whole but smashed up a bit 2 ground cloves 1 inch ginger 1 cup whole milk (use a mug as a measure) 2-3 tsp sugar 1 cup of water

In a small saucepan, boil the water then add the cloves, ginger and tea. After a minute add the milk, sugar and cardamom and boil until the milk frothes. Strain and serve.


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