A Morning Thing

We get up (lazily, slowly, and only after spending exactly as much time as we want waking up and messing around), get dressed, and walk to the chai-wallah. He works on a street corner next to a vada stand. The chai world is the size of a child’s computer desk, but every bit of surface is used. This is a man who makes chai exactly how you like it (whoever you may be).

The chai-wallah nods knowingly and smiles small but with great intensity. He pulls two small glasses from a wash bin and to each glass he adds a little scalding hot water from a bulky pot with a spigot. As far as I can tell, this is to warm the glass and perhaps to clean out any dust and such that might have flown in since it was washed. He then picks up the metal cup of magic and adds a very exact amount of (sugar?) powder, two heaping spoonfuls plus one just-this-much-more dash. He pushes back the cover of the hot milk tureen and dippers up a couple of sloshes worth. The cover is replaced.

Now the beautiful part begins, and it is more varied. Sometimes the tea is old and has no more power. Sometimes it is fresh and lively. He lifts the cup with the flexible mesh (cheesecloth?) basket resting in it, rim over rim, handle lying over the side of the cup. If the brew is not good, flick go the contents into the bin under the tiny table. The mixture of tea leaves and spices is replenished from a large plastic container. He places the fresh masala (spiced) chai (tea) basket into its cup and puts the whole works under the hot water spigot. He adds enough to get things brewing.

Sometimes the chai is not old. Sometimes it just needs a bit more water. He will add only a little more than he needs for your chai. If there is already enough because of the last customer, he moves directly to my favorite part of this lovely set of actions.

The metal cup of magic (holding perhaps-sugar and milk, remember?) is sitting on the table. The cup-and-basket of tea is being held, considered, brewed. When it is close (and this takes no more than a couple of seconds), the chai-wallah lifts the basket of tea out of its cup and, with an art too quick for me to anticipate, pours the already-steeped tea from the cup back over the basket and into your cup of magic.

I say that this is art, and yes – I believe it is so. I have over-steeped too many cups of tea not to recognize the bitterness. And a businessman cannot afford to under-utilize his tea leaves. So there is an art there – enough water to create enough tea at the right speed and in the right moment poured into enough milk and sugar to fill two small glasses with the perfect (for that person) cup of chai.

The next part is just fun. Back and forth goes the mixture – tea, spices, milk, and sugar pouring in one foot, two foot streams between two large metal cups (the metal cup of magic {remember?} and another cup, the metal fun-streaming-mixing-cup). The distance is important, as this is how the drink is aerated, fluffed, frothed…given extra life. The small glasses get their hot water swirled and dumped, and the chai is served.

This process takes less time than the series of greetings you exchange with the vada vendor, the young students of the college for “economics and commerce”, and the odd storekeeper out for their morning leg-stretching.

Only the mocha mornings at Gravity Feed could ever compare to this process. Sleepy-eyed James making liquid daytime on an old pull-type espresso machine for droopy Dena – that’s impossible to beat. But don’t tell the chai-wallah…I told him I liked him best.

Here’s a link to Hasim doing his thing…


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