I lived in India with my family for three years in the mid-eighties. My husband and I were doing volunteer work in the country. The day I arrived (on my own) was hot, which, of course, was nothing unusual. I landed at Delhi International Airport and the heat and dust hit me like a furnace as soon as I stepped outside the terminal. Friends met me and I soon realized that their purpose was to help me make a quick adjustment to Indian culture.
Longing for a long, cool drink, I was instead taken to a warehouse that was being cleared out in order to prepare it for future use as a printing headquarters and general storehouse. Dust covered everything. I looked expectantly around for bottles of drink. Hmmm none in sight. Oh well, I wasn't going to make them think I was a weakling. So I set to, wishing I had a mask to shield me from the rising cloud of dust.
Three hours later I was so exhausted I'd almost forgotten about my thirst. Then out of the blue, I was asked, "Do you want a drink?" You can imagine my response! They took me outside and told me they were going to introduce me to the local chai wallah'. There squatting in the dust (where else!) was the person in question, that is, one who sells chai'. It looked awfully hot and milky to one who was longing for something cold and watery! Nevertheless, I took the small clay cup he offered me.
Aromatic and sweet (tantalizingly so), at first I sipped it but then, gradually, decided it was infinitely better than being thirsty. I had three refills and that was my introduction to chai. Later I was to learn from another chai wallah the art of making my own chai. Here is the recipe:
1 saucepan, generally heated on a small gas ring, into which is placed
1/2 pint water
1/2 pint milk
1 stick cinnamon
8 cardamom pods
8 whole cloves
Other spices to taste (e.g. fresh chopped ginger, small amount black pepper)
4 heaped teaspoons tea
4-8 teaspoons sugar (yes, it's supposed to be sweet!)
Place all ingredients into the saucepan and bring slowly to a boil. When mixture rises, place lid on and swirl it around until it reaches the desired strength. Strain it into small glasses. (The street vendors still use clay cups without handles.) This quantity serves four.
"Chai whai pijiay?" (Anyone for chai?)
So, as you can see, chai bears little resemblance to what the western world (and nearly every other Asian country) calls tea. It is really only sold in northern India and Nepal. South Indians tend to prefer coffee. My children, now adults, have never acquired a taste for chai, although my Indian daughter-in-law likes it. As for me, I'm addicted to it! Incidentally, it doesn't taste much like the instant sachet chai that is now sold in many coffee shops.