Delhiwale: The mystery behind a curious tea tradition
Old Delhi’s pavement tea stalls are notorious for their extra-sweet, extra-milky, extra-gingery chai. If you are a tea seller’s regular patron, he might add spoonfuls of malai too.
One aspect of the Walled City’s tea-drinking culture, however, has not been investigated by our city’s food chroniclers — the practice of serving chai in a glass tumbler placed inside a china cup.
Why this gimmick? After all, in the rest of the city, pavement stalls serve tea either in a glass tumbler or in a cup.
One morning, we walked through the area’s narrow alleys and talked to a couple of chaiwallas to find the answer. Each one had a different explanation.
The first thing that the footpath sellers of Bazaar Chitli Qabar do after setting up their stalls is to send their errand boys to Maqbool’s tea stall, bang opposite Khajoor Wali Masjid (the date tree that gave the mosque its name no longer exists).
Mr Maqbool, whose stall consists of just a rickety table, serves chai in the typical Purani Dehli style — glass tumbler in a ceramic cup. “This is the trend here,” he said. ”Many people like to share their chai with a friend or with the shop assistant, so they pour half of the chai into the cup for the other person. That’s why we use both cup and glass.”
This idea is not acceptable to Muhammed Zia, a tea vendor in the nearby Gali Sooiwallan. “We place the glass in the cup so that if the customer finds the chai too hot, he can cool it by pouring it in the cup and back (many times over).”
A tea seller in Chitli Qabar, Muhammed Naeem, says, “If you want ‘half chai’, then I will give it to you in the china cup, which is always small. But if you want ‘full chai’, then I will give it to you in the glass, which I will keep inside the cup so that you can hold it better. The cup has handle, the glass doesn’t.”
Meanwhile, a puzzled Lateef, whose stall stands opposite an unknown person’s marble tomb in Turkman Gate Bazaar, simply shrugs at the mystery. “This is how it is… this dukan (shop) was set up by my grandfather. He used to give chai in glass and cup. After his death, my father also gave chai in glass and cup. My father is now old and stays at home. I also give the chai in a glass and cup.”
A thoughtful-looking man with a long white beard is quietly listening to Lateef. He tells us in chaste Urdu, “Old Delhi dates from the days of Mughal emperor Shahjahan. The raeeszade (rich people) in the royal court consumed chai only on special occasions, sometimes even as medicine, whereas, ordinary Dehliwallas were not used to chai as we are now. The British gave us this addiction.”
Oh yes, those Brits!
But now a trend is emerging and we can’t blame them any longer.
An increasing number of tea stalls are replacing the customary combination with the use-and-throw plastic cups, which is preferred by customers because of its supposed cleanliness.
A few more years and Old Delhi’s glass-in-a-cup tradition will be history. You will then probably get the pleasure of being served chai in glass and cup only in some expensive retro-themed tea lounge.