Beauty of the Chai Stand

Man drinking chai on the street

[kshishtof]/[iStock]/Thinkstock

Some people go to India for spiritual rejuvenation. They go there to meditate and do yoga and generally get all blissed out, viewing the country as a pure place to put the mind at ease and the soul at rest. This seems like an absurd idea to me. Unless you’re the kind of person who can happily ignore maimed child beggars, starving families and human feces on the sidewalks. But, whatever. I guess there is truth to the saying that India is a world of extremes: extreme beauty, extreme repulsion, wonderfully delicious tastes and smells, but also, most definitely, flavors and stenches that will knock you into a gagging, rancid, stomach-acid-in-the-mouth dementia. That being said, one of India’s most beautiful things is the Chai stand. The Chai stand, with its steaming pots and pans, wafts of sweet aromatic sensuality, gathered crowds and sweltering conversations. And my my, is it ever cheap.

The Chai Experience Defined
“Chai” in its direct translation simply means “tea”. But in India it’s so much more. For centuries they’ve been blending black tea leaves, milk, spices and sugar to create what may more appropriately be referred to as Masala Chai. The result is a sweet sumptuous steaming drink that many – myself included – cannot get enough of.

Walking the streets of India, nearly anywhere in India, means a chai stand will be unavoidable. You might smell or hear it first, the sweet nectar perfume brought to your nostrils on a rare breeze, or the chatter of passersby as they sip the contents of the tiny glass or metal cups. You may hear the banging of the pots, the boiling of the milk or the splash of sugar entering the mix and the rumble of the foam that forms the top of the concoction. When imbibing Chai, it’s important that you use all of your senses.

The Price of Happiness
You’ll need to bring your rupees, though not much. A cup of chai will run between 2 ½ to 5 rupees. Right. That doesn’t mean anything without a conversion. Consider that you get nearly 50 rupees for a single American dollar, and you get the idea of how much chai you can cram into your stomach. Too much, maybe. If “too much” can tolerably be uttered in the same breath as “Chai” (I just tried it, and some mystical enigma clamped my mouth shut).

Health Benefits
There aren’t any. Chai is purely a taste sensation that dances in your mouth like a sort of edible Cirque du Soleil – flavor acrobats and aromatic sword juggling. Other benefits can be found, however, particularly for the itinerant vagabond. The chai stand is a meeting ground, a place for conversing, and in India, you just never know what may result from that. You may be invited to witness a cobra fight a mongoose (true story), or to hang with a dude who pierces his cheeks and tongue with swords for some street performance cash, or taken to an orphanage to spend time with young children without families. India is a wild place, and if spiritual purification can be found there, I’d bet my rupees that the journey begins with a Chai stand.

By Bryan Schatz

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