In Delhi, you're never far from a chaikhana or a small cycle cart selling tea.
According to Abu Sufiyan, a heritage revivalist, the residents of Old Delhi don't ask whether you want to have tea, but serve chai to all guests assuming they will enjoy it. He took me to the shutterless Wazeer Tea and Coffee Shop on Gali Madarse Wali in Matia Mahal.
Wazir Tea and Coffee Shop remains open around the clock, without missing a single day on the calendar. It is owned and managed by Maulana Wazirudin and his sons. I met one of the sons, Azeemudin, at the shop. He puts on his skull cap and says "Bismillah" before we start talking. The family is religious, and the work shift is based on the timings of the azaan. Wazeer bhai comes in the evening to manage the shop, while the sons are present through the day. While most chai stalls use a stovetop, they have a coffee maker usually found at wedding venues. The electric espresso coffee machine boils the full fat milk and adds a nice foamy finish. They don’t use regular or low-fat milk, because they believe chai must me made with the full fat version for best results. "15 rupaiye lekar agar zayka nahi diya to kya fayda (what is the point of charging ₹ 15 per cup if we can't serve good, flavorful tea),” says Azeemudin.
Tea helps understand the tea seller, and one such incident happened to me in Malviya Nagar, New Delhi. A first look at this tea shop may not leave much of an impression, but speak to the tea seller, who goes by the name Raju Bhai, and you will perhaps find a sense of kinship. He invariably wears a white kurta pyjama while brewing and serving chai. The tea shop was opened in 1950 by his father, BD Grover, who hailed from a small town, Dera Ghazi Khan (now in Pakistan). His sells simple, plain tea with no ginger or masala. Raju Bhai says, "I like plain tea and only know how to make it this way. Hence, you will find nothing else in my shop." His small shop is an adda (hang-out spot) for the inhabitants of Malviya Nagar, who sit there, sing songs, talk politics, or simply hang out with friends. As you sit on the curb and sip tea, you can't help but feel a sense of community.
Tea is believed to embody love and a poetry. If you’re in the neighbourhood of Mirza Ghalib's Haveli, stop by Firdaus Mithai Shop. Most residents of Delhi prefer their masala chai to be thick, milky, and robust, and that's exactly what one gets in this 65-year-old shop. The noise of traffic and sounds of streets complete the experience as you sip chai. I overheard a customer saying to his foreigner friend, "I come here ever so often it's like a ritual, a cup of chai with jalebi."
If there’s a college area, a landmark tea stall cannot be far behind. In North Campus, one such place is Sudama Tea Stall outside Ramjas College. I was first introduced to this shop while attending an event in 2018. There was a sea of people standing outside to taste the owner's, fondly known as Mama ji, freshly brewed tea. The special tea with homemade masala and a strong flavour of cardamom is a hit with students and faculty.
Mama ji enjoys serving tea to his customers, and claims that he remembers every one of his regulars by name. “Bas dosti ho jati hai inse aur inki baatein sunne mein maza aata hai (I become friends with my repeat customers and then enjoy their conversations).”
It would be impossible to write about tea trails in Delhi without mentioning the legendary Ganga Dhaba at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campus. Nafis Jilani, a JNU Alumni says, “Ganga Dhaba, a small tea shop that has been around for more than 60 years, is the most popular place for JNU students and a nostalgic haven for former students.” A small cup of tea here comes with a side of intellectually stimulating conversations or lively discussions.
The next time you are out and about in the streets of Delhi, head to these shops to enjoy a cup of chai and the stories that waft through the air.