Making Tea the Roadside Way

Many of us Indians have vivid memories of roadtrips, and the compelling aroma of chai wafting from the roadside stalls and rail stations. There would always be a big pan frothing on an ancient earthen oven, with little glass tumblers of scalding hot milky tea being handed to customers by barely adolescent workers. The same tea leaves would be boiled till all the tannin was extracted. This was the working man’s version of chai, not the tea-bagged super-fancy chai spice strangeness the rest of the world knows.

Brewing tea in a roadside stall in IndiaThere are as many versions of the chai recipe as there are localities in India, but the basic ingredients are the same — black tea, water and milk. You notice I didn’t mention the spices yet. This is because in many areas no spice is added. Just the tea is enough to carry the day. Let’s take on the most common method of roadside preparation.

In a saucepan combine 3 parts of water and one part of milk and bring to boil. Add two teaspoonfuls of black tea leaves. Leave the orange pekoe for fancier times. You’ll need a tea blend that can stand up to all the boiling. A basic Lipton loose-leaf tea is all you need. Let the leaves boil for about two minutes and then turn down the heat to low. After about 3 more minutes pour directly from the saucepan into cups through a strainer or a piece of cheesecloth, add sugar to taste, and enjoy.

The genius of this method of preparation is that you can tweak it to your exact preference. You can add cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, or whatever else you like to the boiling water to enhance your experience. The milk tones down the tannin released by the boiling producing a smooth brew base. Now bear in mind that roadside stalls rarely ever use skim milk — it’s whole or nothing. If you prefer skim, that’s perfectly fine. I’ve found adding a touch of half and half in the boil brings it closer to the creamy results you find in the tea stalls.

Frothing is common in some parts of India, though more for coffee than tea. You can use a frother or try the age-old method of pouring into another tumbler from up high. This might take some practice, and you are handling scalding hot liquid. Don’t blame/flame/sue me if you get burned.

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