Sophia sat on an Iron chair outside the Honey Hut Café scrolling her old posts one of which read ‘ChaI love You’ and in no time the staff attended her. She was only the third customer this morning and second one to sit outside. No wonder this café on Shimla’s mall road is a go to place for most non-Indian tourists who like their food and service both they serve Coffee with Chai options too and other dishes which are equally good.
The staff person started suggesting her the available types of coffees “Honey Espresso, Honey Americano, Honey Macchiato….” Sophia interrupted him and said “Ek Elaichi Chai please” in her heavy American accent. The staff was quite taken aback not just with the choice of the drink but with the speed with which she ordered it.
The other customer was sitting on the next table alone, waiting for his order to be served. A man in his early 60s who heard the order from Sophia and turned to see Sophia. Out of curiosity he turned to her and asked politely with a smile, “May I join you, young lady?” his friendly and comforting voice didn’t allow Sophia to say no to him. She replied with a coy smile “Sure Sir”. He was well dressed with an authoritative look.
“My name is Colonel Satyendra Sharma, Ex-Indian Army.” he introduced himself to her with pride. Before Sophia could reciprocate, their order of chai and coffee arrived. An elaichi wali chai and a cappuccino, the service at this place was really fast. Colonel asked “What is your good name young lady?” to which she replied with “Ohhh sorry!!! I am Sophia, Sir. Here in India on a solo trip, ticking my bucket list off”. Colonel was impressed to know that.
He took a hot sip of coffee, adjusted his glasses and said “I could have stayed on my table if you haven’t had ordered this chai, with so much of confidence” he smiled again in hope that Sophia will take this sportingly and not as an offence. Sophia laughed “Yeah! I hear that a lot, me ordering chai and people wondering like how can an American order a chai, that too in close to perfect Hindi”. She winked and continued “Sir this story might be longer than you expect, do you really want to hear it?” she offered, as she was sure that a gentleman like Colonel will always oblige.
As expected Colonel said “I would really be glad to hear, since my wife and daughter are on their shopping spree and going by their track record I am available for 2 long hours” he laughed hard and Sophia joined along. She was about to start, but soon realized her cup was empty. Colonel saw it and ordered the staff “Beta 1 Chai with Coffee on the side” she thanked him and leaned forward on the table to begin the narration.
So I had these 2 friends in my university from India who boasted of this Indian beverage they used to miss so much. I always shrugged their enthusiasm as a hyped attempt to describe something. How could I let them influence me! I was a hardcore coffee lover. Hailing from Seattle, where the coffee drinking culture is so widely popular and a place which has given Starbucks to the world, I used to feel annoyed by their constant chai chatters. So every time I heard chai I always got a cup of coffee for myself to reaffirm my faith in coffee.
That was my first introduction with chai. They invited me for a cup of chai which I always refused politely. Which they never took seriously. Days passed on and on one summer evening I heard this lady in US making millions from selling chai under the brand name of drink bhakti. This was somewhere in 2016 and I guess this is where I started taking interest in chai. Like I was so curious to know that a non-alcoholic beverage which was not coffee but was so cool that it was raking money in millions.
Then after 4 months me and my cousins planned a trip to India co-incidentally. In the flight, I was offered an option of chai/coffee. I chose both, because still I was not sure how I would like it. I sipped my first sip of chai and I was really disappointed, it was all watery and not at all worth the hype. It was awful. I drank the coffee I reserved and I was happy that my love affair with coffee got a renewal. I also wondered how this stupid drink is raking money in millions.
Then while on the trip I saw something on every streets and corners of India. I visited Delhi, Chandigarh, Mumbai and all I could find was a tea stall everywhere. They couldn’t have had caught my attention usually. But these places had this sweet aroma of the chai brewing in with cardamom and other condiments, which varied from place to place. Plus there were always people having their share of chai in midst of their busy schedule. These chai stalls will give google maps a good run for their money. My cousins Oliver and Evelyn were so hell bent on making me drink chai that we stopped at one such stall in Mumbai.
I was successful in making them avoid chai in Chandigarh and Delhi, but my luck ran out in Mumbai. We ordered 3 cutting chai with 3 instant coffees after the stall owner explained us what the cutting means. To be honest, unknowingly I did built up expectations again, just because of that luring aroma. But to be cautious, we already ordered our coffees as a backup plan. I sipped the hot chai and that was a game changer. The flavours hit me hard, not overly sweet with notes of cardamom, and the tea flavour masking the milky one yet retaining the texture. I just closed my eyes to relish the taste. My cousins were equally surprised.
It will be fair to say “I fell in love with Chai”. Then as we started to relish this amazing drink at every possible opportuniy we realized how central this drink is to all the Indians. The chai stalls in India are the places where people forget their differences and connect over a cup of chai. I got to know many stories at every stall we visited. Then with each stall and their chai my love for chai started getting deeper. Deeper like shades of chai you see when you order a ‘Kadak Chai’. Sophia smiled notoriously as even in her American accent the pronunciation was really good. Then she continued as the colonel was attentively listening with a smile.
We were hosted by 2 families of Indian friends and there I learnt, how ritualistic this chai drinking practice is. Every Indian wakes up to embrace the first drink of the day which is chai for 70% of Indians. I did my calculations and found that this numbers is closer to a billion. That increased my respect for chai. As a drink which is preffered by almost a billion people is worth something. I started sampling chai from different places, restaurants, home stays, fine dining restaurants, railway stations and what I observed is once you fall for chai then no other caffeine dose is good enough for you.
I returned to Seattle and after few months had a real date. Intentionally I chose a place which served good Chai, my date had no problem with that as he was an Indian. And I can tell one thing for sure, Indians can never say no to a Chai. We met and I asked him Coffee or Tea. Before he even answered, I already thought in my mind. If he says Tea, I will reciprocate with ‘Will you marry me?’ Colonel was in awe of Sophia’s Chai Journey so far. At this break they both were laughing.
He admitted, that it was very amusing to hear a Chai story coming from an American. “As Ironical as it may sound but my daughter doesn’t like Chai, she never had Chai till date.” Hearing this Sophia smiled, as if she found a younger version of herself. She responded “Do not worry Colonel, she too shall fall in love with ChaI someday soon”. Their cups were empty and colonel asked Sophia “Up for another cup?” She responded “Yes please, the story is not yet over.” Colonel placed order of a Chai with coffee and the narration continued.
“ChaI love you”
So my date said ‘do they serve Chai’ and I was so pleased to hear this. We bonded very well on our Chai date. Coffee dates are fun, but Chai dates are real. This is what I can tell you Sir from my experience. I posted this story on my Instagram and to my surprise, it went quite viral in India. The caption of the story read “#ChaI love you”. It was my way of saying 2 things at once. Chai I love you and Chai loves me back. Anand and me always had these Chai dates frequently and don’t know when over these cups of chai we got serious and he proposed me to which of course I said yes.
Colonel was delighted to hear this but with a little curiosity he asked “So why are you on a solo trip?” to which Sophia replied “Just before getting hitched I wanted to experience something on my own, one last trip without anyone. A trip where I travel with my chai, changing cups to cups and places to places.” Colonel promptly said “God bless you beta” even Sophia understood what beta meant, just by looking in this veteran’s eyes which were full of well wishes for her. She continued…
Then on my trip, I so far covered the seven sisters to visit tea plantations. I heard from the folks what are some amazing experiences to have with chai? And I have been told chai and pakoda in North, Chai and Vadapav in Mumbai, Chai and Khasta Kachori in UP, Chai and Samosa in Delhi which I already tried. I am surely going to try rest of them. But by now I can happily announce that I replaced coffee with chai in my life.
On each chai stall I went, I noticed people socializing over news. Especially politics, cricket and Bollywood. These stall owners keep the rates very low so that every person can afford it. I saw rich people getting down from their cars to have a chai break and at the same place I have seen homeless people sipping the same chai. I don’t know but for me as an outsider, this is something beautiful. A drink which does not compels to discriminate. I can’t say the same for coffee. Maybe someday soon coffee with chai becomes equally capable of wiping these differences.
Now couple of days ago I met these amazing group of college students who were staying in my hotel. I connected with them on a bonfire where chai was served in this amazing pink frost weather. Everyone had their Chai stories. From where I came to know that ‘Chai is not just a drink, it really is an emotion’. It works wonders in many ways.
From being that author’s buddy to his creative journey, to a student’s companion in times of exam. From the much needed power drink during office hours to a relaxing melody after your office hours. From a welcome drink for the guests, to a savior during your cough and cold. From a conversation starter to a simple etched memory. Chai fits in every shades of life and brings out the true spirit of every moment. I can’t imagine a world without chai.
Colonel was listening to her with interest and jokingly asked, “so will you start your Chai business in Seattle?”
“NO Sir! Let me just be friend with Chai, business with something so priceless is not my Cup of TEA” she started laughing and before colonel could shoot another question she added quickly “Even Chai is Billion dollar business in India itself, I can only imagine how grand this thing can be in America. But then again life is not all about business”.
Colonel was impressed by the way she explained her views. He said “It seems, being an outsider you know more than me about Chai. Keep up the good work and let the experiences add on.”
By the time of concluding, she was so happy within herself, that the glow was visible on her face. “I will keep rooting for chai, all my life.” She added. Colonel Sharma stood up from his chair and kept a hand lightly on her head and said “Stay blessed my child.” Sophia was moved by the warmth she felt. Meanwhile Colonel saw his family waving at him and approaching with smiles. Sophia stood up and greeted everyone and this chai pe charcha continued for a little longer.
So dear foodies… Did you like that? All characters were fictional in this story. Then too I wish, somewhere in the real world we have a story as close to the one narrated above. I did this for the love of chai. “ChaI love you” it sounds cool isn’t it? Let me know if you loved this piece of work. Share with your ChaI loving friends who are fond of reading. If you are new to this blog, you can read more about me here.
This is foodie_khiladi signing off in a hope that you will like this. See you soon in my next post. Keep sharing, keep caring.