Not far from Bengaluru’s Christ University is a narrow lane with a few shops and small cafés. I had my eyes peeled for the one friend and cookbook author Archana Pidathala had WhatsApped me about, with two copper samovars standing prominently in front. Not at all hard to find.
The Malabar Cafe is small, with two wooden benches taking up much of the space, and the promise of inexpensive, fuss-free tea. The menu pays homage to Malabari spices and is wonderfully democratic, I felt, seeing the Malabari special tea listed along with the Bengaluru special—the former is a lemon ginger honey black tea, while the latter is a thicker-than-usual milk tea. There was also a Biryani tea, clearly for the culinary adventurer—something about a mix of flavours, they said, but I chose to play it safe with a Sulaimani (lemon black tea).
With all the focus on snazzy new brands, it’s perhaps easy to overlook the hole-in-the-wall tea stalls and the phenomenal job they do in marketing tea. But change is brewing in these places too, in the kind of tea offered, in the way they respond to trends (butterfly pea flower, anyone?). Malabar’s owner, Hareesh N.V., started the café six years ago and has since opened a few branches. His inspiration was the chay kada, or tea stalls, of Kerala but he speaks about his tea with great clarity, and is clearly proud of being able to customise for everyone, with or without milk or sugar, a little bit of ginger for one, a squeeze of lemon for another.... No request is too much, not to mention the prices ( ₹12-20), mindful of the students who flock to the tea stall.
What took me there, though, was neither the Sulaimani nor the samovars. Archana had sent a photograph of the café’s sign: “Kerala tea is the answer for most of the Problems”. It was the assurance of succour that made it so inviting that I dragged my coffee-favouring husband there on a weekday afternoon.
The café walls had a poster listing green tea’s health benefits (We serve leaf tea for its full benefits, says Hareesh). The samovars are bubbling continuously—one has water and the other, milk, maintained at a constant 100 degrees Celsius. On offer alongside tea are Kerala snacks like fried plantain and cutlets. It’s everything we expect and love about our chai shops, inexpensive tea with a strong side of personality.
Some years ago, two Fulbright scholars, Resham Gellatly and Zach Marks, arrived in Delhi from the US. Their first introduction to the city was via the chaiwallah and from then on, with their curiosity piqued, they began to seek out chaiwallahs. They went on to document these stories on their blog, chaiwallahsofindia.com, travelling across the country to meet as many as 1,000 chaiwallahs. Chai, they say, is integral to us but those who make it are often ignored. When the Brits wanted to market tea in India, it was by taking tea to the masses. No one does this better than the chaiwallah. Perhaps it’s time to turn the spotlight on them again, as the true ambassadors of Indian tea.
Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry. @AravindaAnanth1 on Twitter.
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