The wail of the chai wallah

The masala chai comes in a thick white porcelain cup with its distinctive orange colour and a thin brown skin of boiled milk on top. I have just had lunch at an Indian restaurant in suburban Pretoria. Under the heading ‘hot beverages’ on the menu I spot masala chai – a good way to end an Indian meal, I reckon.

I take a sip of the scalding tea and it all comes back to me – a wisp of a boy, walking down the aisle on the train between Jaipur and Udaipur, swinging his tea caddy and offering masala chai in paper cups. “Chai, chai, chai,” the chai wallah wails.

It was wedding season, just weeks before the monsoon, when I fell in love with India. The month of May in India is not for the faint-hearted Westerner. Every day the temperature edged up to the 50 degrees Celsius mark; weather for swooning and laying back against the pillows in a limp cotton frock. But not for me this lethargy brought about by the heat. All I felt was energy, awe and wonder as we travelled from Chennai in the south to the north where the holy river Ganga flows from the foothills of the Himalayas.

The reason for my first trip to India was to celebrate the arranged marriage of Ragu, son of a tobacco farmer from Ongole in central India (now living in South Africa), with Spoorti, the daughter of a tobacco merchant from the same town. We were treated lavishly by the father of the bride who had never set eyes on this group of 13 South Africans, paying for our hotel accommodation for three days and opening his home to us for a spectacular pre-wedding party.

India is all about the senses. Getting off the plane it hits you: Smells of dry heat, dust, putrid sewerage, a spiciness that holds the promise of food you have never tasted. On the roads your ears ring with drivers hooting constantly. But this is not a rude kind of hooting, the get-out-of-my face kind. The hooting says here I am, see me, let’s not connect by accident. People chatter and trade, and the sights and colours you see – turmeric yellow, electric greens, pinks and blues – dizzying but spectacular.

And then there is the food; southern Indian favourites like masala dosa, a paper-thin pancake standing up like a pointy hat amongst small pots of chutney; another southern breakfast staple called idli, steaming discs of sour white loveliness (almost like ‘suurpap’ we know in Africa) again served with spicy sambar in small stainless steel pots. To quench a never-ending thirst there is lemon-lime-and-soda, either sweet or salty and tea, of course, masala chai, hot and spicy.

Travelling north to Delhi the vegetarian staples of the south change to succulent meaty curries, sometimes cooked in tandoor ovens and always served with bread – chapatis, parathas, poori, naan.

I returned from India and have never stopped looking for real food from India. I have found my favourites here and there; dosa at a small eatery in Laudium outside Pretoria that prides itself on south Indian tiffin, idli in a food court in Sydney, and now, the perfect masala chai in suburban Pretoria. I will not stop looking, until I can return again to this country that has bewitched me on so many different levels.


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