Enterprise: Chai Wallah (a person who prepares tea on a bicycle-stand) done by Sandeep, London, England.
For those whom I have met and was fond of, I’d made chai. People who read my blog know my favorite drink is not wine, beer or fizzy stuff. It is chai.
When I entered a homely hostel in Ghana, West Africa, I met with Sandeep. Sandeep was unmistakably an Indian fellow and as soon as I sat next to him, I felt at ease and rather remarkably calm. He came to Ghana to cycle with a friend.
Sandeep had cycled before in Gujarat, India. So he knew what he was about to expect, because we all know, cyclists, that cycling in India is king. I’d made chai for Sandeep that day I arrived in Accra, and after he cherished that with delight Sandeep asked to make me a chai. I was surprised and enthralled: a man who made me chai.
And for them who never heard of chai, it is black tea, mixed with spices, some water and much milk.
- Sitting in Indian trains one hears a man screaming ‘chaichaichaichaichaichaichai’ and up to this day, since chai was introduced in trains when the British arrived, there is always a chai wallah in trains. He walks with a kettle of hot milk mixed with some water and millions of tiny plastic cups to provide a hot drink. Whether it is 10 degrees in cold wintry Haryana state or suffocating hot in Karnataka summer state.
- Chai is a forthcoming of the English colonization started back in 1803, when they had a monopoly on black tea leaves. The adding of exotic spices like cardamom and cloves is obviously an Indian influence. What do you know about chai and its whereabouts? Do you have a history with chai? You are both Indian and English so starting a chai business sounds logical to me, but for the fact that a tea stand in England is highly unusual. How did this idea form in your mind?
Sandeep: Well, as you know, I love bicycles and I love chai. When I was a child, all I wanted was a bike. It’s the only thing my young self yearned for. I remember even now the searing pain of that yearning. The envy when I saw other boys on their bicycles. As a child, each year the family would go to a little village to spend the summer with my maternal family. One of my aunts had a bicycle which was small enough for both my brother and I to ride. I remember the three of us fighting to ride the bike. I feel sorry for my aunt, as my grandmother would tell her off and insist that she let us boys ride it!
A bicycle is the very first thing I bought for myself when I started a casual summer job. I was 15 at the time. It was a beautiful blue Peugeot road bike. I absolutely loved It.
And as for chai, at a very basic level it has a very powerful influence on most people from my tribe. The early morning is infused with the aroma of freshly brewed chai. This is the aroma of home. And home for most of us is amongst other things, a very strong, deeply imprinted memory. It conjures up the idea of family, safety, warmth, mother, laughter, cosy. And when you visit someone and they are making chai for you, you can’t not have a warm glow grow inside of you.
A couple of years ago, I was with a few friends talking about doing something with food as a hobby. As you do when you let your mind run free, knowing full well that nothing much will come of it and it’ll all be forgotten the following morning! A few weeks later, one of these friends sent me a drawing of a bicycle designed for dispensing food. That was the start. After a short while the phrase chaicycle came to me and that was the Kairos moment. Once this phrase had arrived, the idea would not leave. I fell in love with the phrase. The idea would ebb and flow, ebb and flow, ebb and flow in my mind. I daydreamed about what I could do, all the while believing that it wasn’t something to take seriously. But then what’s the harm in dreaming? However, the idea took permanent, obsessive residence in my mind!
One part of me would say “It is a wonderful, playful, fun, beautiful idea.” The other part of me would say “Don’t be silly. You’ve already disappointed your family by not becoming a doctor, lawyer, pharmacist or business man! They are still trying to come to terms with that. Do you really want to become a chaiwallah? And anyway, the sums don’t add up. You’d lose money!” Also, I did not need to do it. I was finally blissfully engaged in my beloved vocation. I was busy. It was enough. It was plenty. I was happy.
But over time I began to recognize the energy with which this idea was percolating in me and I know through experience that whenever I have followed such ideas in the past, no matter how crazy, the results have been surprising and remarkably fruitful. The idea became undeniable and I knew I had to do it. So then I wondered whether anyone else had had the same idea. Indeed, I found a guy in Bristol, Paul Saville, who runs a Chai Cycle in the winter and sells ice cream in the summer. He was very supportive and gave me a few tips.
- Chai is not easily made, it takes an effort to understand how to prepare it well. It takes practice and experience. Chai is not simply black tea with spices thrown in. I have come upon chai which was made by the liters, from fresh cow milk only. In ashram’s they may use soya milk out of convincing beliefs. Some have it slowly boiled while a child apprentice is stirring the concoction. Others have it boiling in a pan so dirty and smeared with tiny fragments of tea leaves that it looks not drinkable and surely not appealing.
- I started to prepare decent chai on the wrong foot. Although I had the best quality Himalayan tea leaves, straight from Darjeeling, and although they were years beyond their date of expire by the time I used them, doesn’t matter with tea really, I did it wrong. I threw leaves, milk, water and spices into a pan and start boiling. Now I know to do it correct. How are you going to boil your chai?
Sandeep: I have grown up around women who can make delicious chai intuitively. We have a word in Gujarati, my mother tongue – aasre, which means roughly or guessingly (not even sure that’s a proper word in English!). So, whenever you ask them how much milk or water or tea leaves to add, they simply say aasre! So I used to be very nervous making chai especially for other people. It seemed I was doing the same thing as them and yet mine never quite had the same delicious perfection. Then over time I got used to making it almost as deliciously as they did.
My mother used to make her own spice mix. Each household has their own mix. After she passed away, I have several aunts who’d generously gift me their own concoctions. And then when I met you, Cinderella, and learned that you make your own, it blew my mind away. I had never met a European who was so devoted to chai. I then had a go at making chai masala à la Cinderella!
I will use an induction hob in places where electricity is available as it is really quick. Else I’ll need to carry a butane gas bottle and a gas ring – a much heavier alternative! But it’ll give me independence.
- As with so many things all over the world, particularly in India, a few years back there was a scam in chai on trains. The chai wallahs were all suspected from serving chai made from chalk, just to give the drink a milky color. Now, the chai on trains is usually not the very best quality but it still is delicious enough to order a chai at each opportunity, that may be 25 tiny cups in a few hours. Some use solely fresh ginger to spice up there chai, others only cardamom.
I learned the technique about preparing chai from an Indian friend his Gujarati mum. I made it to perfection by learning how to serve the best proportion from a Keralite Couch Surfing host in Dubai. The choice in spices were my own taste and took me years to balance them out. I use black pepper, cardamom, coriander seeds, cumin-seeds, cloves, cinnamon bark, anise-seeds, star-anise, a little bit of nutmeg and a few red chili’s. I may add fresh ginger as well. I’m not going to ask for your secret concoction but what will you use for your chai?
Sandeep: I have found that the ratio of 50-50 milk and water works well. I use semi skimmed milk, sometimes full fat milk. I will also offer vegan versions with soya milk. As for the spice mix, I will make a fresh batch each week. I have also asked my aunts, who have a particularly delicious mix, to make some for me. And I will be offering fresh ginger chai and one spiced simply with finely ground cardamom. People have asked me about other variations like green tea or turmeric tea. But for the time being I want to keep it simple and focus on traditional chai.
- These days, being in South America, I love to drink Yerba mate as my masala spices have run out. It is impossible to make a good chai when the tea bags are of a low quality and the masala spices lack all but cinnamon. I also drink boiled milk with Nescafe, which I try to imagine it being masala chai. Masala chai is beyond compare, but one must do something to get that fix. How do you get your fix? And is starting a ChaiCycle a conviction to have other people meet with this absolutely wonderful warm feeling of an exotic blend? The masala spices I grind myself with a marble mortar. First I peel the cardamom seeds, sort the right proportions, then I fry them in a dry pan for 20 minutes, the fumes spreading through the house finding their way to the second floor. People who enter our house at that moment are enraptured by the mystic atmosphere, while my parents think it stinks. It takes me about a full afternoon to fry and pound the mix, enough for my daily dose lasting 4 months. How do you get your spices right?
Sandeep: I do exactly that. I tend not to use pepper corns as I find that the cloves provide enough of the heat. I personally do not like the spice too firey. Also, you use coriander which no one else I know does! The effect it has I think is to introduce a certain lemony flavour to the taste. So I’ve started including that sometimes. And star anise. The fun part is experimenting with the different spices, including some, removing others and seeing what works.
- Indians, just as about all other cultures outside Europa and the US, use shiploads of sugar. Rashmillah, gulab jamun, halwa and all other ‘sweetmeat’ would be nothing without sugar or honey. Chai host plenty of it too, but many conscious people don’t like sugar. I start using a bit of honey to sweeten the masala chai.
- When I was cycling in India I took a thermos with me and each day after finishing cycling I would head straight out to find a chai wallah who could prepare me a liter fresh chai with no sugar. Most chai wallahs have their tea ready in a big pan, deliciously prepped up with refined sugar. Not everyone will like sugar, so how will you bring your masala chai to the people?
Sandeep: Yes, that’s a good question. People are far more conscious about sugar intake nowadays. However, I don’t think chai is good without sugar so I will mostly be offering sweetened chia. There will also be sugar-free options. I have discovered coconut sugar and I will also offer sweeteners.
- Chai is a name for a collection’s of tea. I love being in countries where there is a chai culture, the counterpart of coziness, but also of difficulty in emancipation (which means hard for a female cyclist to camp freely in nature). Chai is served in Turkey and Iran, where they have chaikana’s, places dedicated to chai solely. Chai it is called in Egypt, Sudan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, China, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka. Women in Sudan sit behind low cabinets on the streets, and prepare all kind of tea’s, from hibiscus to ginger, in thick handmade glass cups. In India it is usually men who prepare chai, in earlier days served in baked stone cups. In Iran chai is served by, this goes without saying, men. Their chai coming from a steaming kettle standing on an endless going fire. In Pakistan they serve you milky chai but without the spices.
- In Paraguay I have come upon yerba mate boiled in milk with a smoldering piece of wood, which matches masala chai as closely as possible, it still isn’t the same. In Kashmir I had chai without the spices but with salt. As I can tell, most cultures don’t use the combination of milk and spices. It is a totally Indian thing. You are going onto the streets of London and serve chai in a ChaiCycle. Why did you start a ChaiCycle?
Sandeep: Well why indeed! One of the motivations for me doing this is that chai is very rarely available in London. When you think what a fantastically cosmopolitan city London is, it is surprising that one can buy really good coffee around every corner. But not chai, unless you are at an Indian restaurant. And even then, they sometimes use these ready prepared sachet so all you have to do is add boiling water! It’s remarkably good but still not quite the same. One reason why it is not so widely available is that it takes time to make. It cannot be pre-prepared and stored in a vacuum flask as it quickly loses it’s flavour. It has to be freshly brewed each time. So it takes time and it is a bit of a messy process!
Sometimes I wake up and think what a ridiculous idea it is. Will I be able to cycle the bike fully laden with a 30-40 kg load of provisions though the streets of London and make it to the destination some 6-15 miles away? And what state will I be in when/if I arrive? I am not that fit a cyclist so it does worry me. On the other hand just the thought of cycling this object of stunning beauty across the streets of London will be an experience I can well imagine I will really enjoy. However slow!! It brings a smile to everyone’s face. It is just a fun thing to do. And I will always have a group of friends joining me whenever I take it out.
- When I came to India when I was 28 years young I fell in love with the country at once. I can’t remember how my first chai came into the light of my being, it was probably a mixture of an ongoing inferno of impressions and the kaleidoscope of life, where tea was just part of it without standing out. I think it took me several visits to India to appreciate chai on its own and to recognize its cultural importance.
I remember being in Rishikesh where I sat at a chaistall, with an NRI, both seeking spiritual wisdom. I think we found it at that very tea-stall, where we sat for 10 hours straight, drinking chai after chai. We did not say much, we just sat and watched life go by. At the end of the day the chai-wallah lost count of our orders and just charged what he thought was suitable… What is your background with chai?
Sandeep: That very much reminds me of the cycle trip I did with Hans, a dear friend of mine, in 2011, when we cycled 1200km around the southern Gujarat peninsula. I wanted to experience my homeland firsthand. And cycling is the best way to do that, short of walking! Chai was very much the mainstay of our refreshment on that trip. We’d have every intention of making an early start but inevitably it got later and later as we had yet another cup of chai after having packed up our stuff ready for the day’s ride. And all through the day, we’d stop at almost every chai stall we came across and marveled at the skill of the chai wallahs. Some had a real flair for the way they practiced their craft. One young, handsome chai wallah who really stands out now would drop a little bit of the scolding hot chai into the palm of his left hand to taste while he was vigorously stirring a huge vat of the stuff with his right hand to make sure it was just right!
- Chai is a heaven for me, a way to relax, or to get away from it all. It is a tool to reflect on my inner feelings, a time to sit in a quiet place and view my thoughts, write them down and analyze them.
Only with chai I am able to fully contemplate on my inner ongoing. It can also be a way to just rest, but never in a dehydrated state of tiredness. For me, chai is strongly connected to the mind. In the mornings I must have chai and write, as I do now at this very moment, though with the poor equivalent of milk and Nescafe. In the evening it is my preferred way to end the day and reflect on its happenings. Preferable chai goes together with tranquil Indian devotional- or mystic music, and natural Tibetan or Indian incense. It even seems to help the digestive system, the bowel movement and the neurological system. What does chai for you, and does it really have all these benevolence I described?
Sandeep: I don’t really know about that, but when you ask me that Cinderella, this is what immediately comes to mind – something which only occurred to me a few weeks ago: That at six months old, I was left for four months with my maternal grandmother in Kenya while my parents needed to be in India! Four whole months! I developed severe pneumonia and was given up for dead by the doctors. They asked my grandparents to take me home and prepare for the worst. Dreading the thought of presenting my parents with a corpse upon their return, my grandmother made a covenant with her favourite saint. That she would give up drinking milk until I personally made a pilgrimage to his birthplace in Virpur, Gujarat in India. This I did when I was six years old. I still remember us making the phone call from India to Kenya informing her that I’d made the pilgrimage. She had drunk black tea until then instead of her beloved chai. That’s well over five years – a very long time.
I wonder whether this is actually what lies at the root of why I am doing this. As an abundant thanksgiving and a tribute to my wonderful, loving, beautiful grandmother, who quite possibly saved my life.
The photo’s of the ChaiCycle launch are made by Jennifer.