Serving Tea With A Difference: A Look At Unique Chai Experiences
Image Credit: Neni Devi | Six Senses Fort Barwara

Ask any Indian what tea means to them and you will understand why chai is not just a beverage but an experience in every household. No matter which part of India you come from, having cups of hot tea with the family at least twice a day—first thing in the morning at the very beginning of the day, and then in the evening when everyone is back home from work and school—is a ritual which unifies familial bonds and food. But what about beyond the family? Can drinking tea be an experience to remember for those away from home or travelling? 

The thousands of people who sell tea all over India—affectionately called chaiwallas in North Indian—will say yes, of course! The very notion of nukkad chai shops with hot snacks in North India, cha shops and chaya kadas with heated political discussions paired with local snacks in Bengal and Kerala, the bustling markets of Mumbai and Ahmedabad where tea is served with bun maska and pav bhaji—all of these prove that tea beyond our homes also create an all new experience of feeling refreshed and satiated at the same time.  

Video Credit: YouTube/Sanjeev Kapoor Khazana

But even among these innumerable sellers of tea, there are a few from across India who stand out because the chia experience they have to offer is simply beyond compare. At once an amalgamation of local flavours, tradition and a slice of life, these men and women have now become so iconic that people travel miles and miles to just share a cuppa with them. Slurrp had a chat with three such amazing people who not only brew tea and sell it, but also offer a unique chai experience nobody should miss. 

The first and perhaps the most popular of these is Laxman Rao, a man who went from selling tea near ITO in the nation’s capital to writing books, plays and now working as a tea consultant at Shangri-La Eros Hotel, New Delhi. The second is Shantamma, lovingly called Chaya Chechi, who steers a Vallom boat in Kerala’s backwaters near Lake Vembanad to offer guests at the Coconut Lagoon, CGH Earth, Kerala with a traditional Malayali tea experience. Third, but in no way last, is Neni Devi at Six Senses Fort Barwara, Rajasthan, who serves locally brewed tea out of a beautiful cart. 

A conversation with these three Indian experts on serving up unique chai experiences revealed just why every Indian’s heartstring and tastebud is so attached to the love for tea. 

Image Credit: CGH Earth

Tea Is Much More Than A Beverage 

For Rao, Shantamma and Devi—who are as divided by distance as their personal style and inherited tradition of making tea—chai is not just a beverage but a way of life. “Brewing and serving chai is more than a task,” says Rao. “It's a profound connection to humanity and a celebration of stories.” For Devi, it is “a symbol of hospitality and warmth”, and one that she hopes one day will take her back to the root of it all, the source of tea leaves in India. “I've never seen tea being plucked and I would like to see the plant once in my life,” she says. 

For Shantamma, tea is all that the other two say it is, but also a part of the background she comes from. “Tea is more than just a drink, it is a symbol of tradition, culture, and community in the Kuttanadan context,” she explains. Given that she serves tea out of a traditional boat, thinking of her as a custodian of a chai heritage that many don’t know about—apart from the context of Kashmir and tea sellers on Shikaras. In both Shantamma and Devi’s case, the experience they have to offer integrates the local community and its traditions with a big tourism and food business that can work cohesively towards sustainability, preservation and business growth. 

So, for both of them as well as Rao, brewing a kettle of tea for guests is not just about a livelihood any more. “Each spice chosen, each tea leaf, and every poured cup represents an intricate experience,” Rao explains. “I'm not merely crafting a beverage; I'm curating an entire journey. It's about intertwining tradition's flavours, the warmth of relationships, and the life tales of diverse individuals. Through Chai, I extend not just a drink, but a fragment of my heart and the very essence of shared moments.” 

Making Tea A Special Experience For All 

Like most Indians, irrespective of gender, our three tea experts also learned how to make the perfect cuppa at a very young age. “I've been serving tea since I was a child, and we used to prepare tea with camel milk back then,” says Devi. Shantamma also learned to make tea during childhood and reveals that with time and daily practice, it does become second nature. “Tea cooked with milk and the Kerala spice cardamom gives it a flavour that is unique and comforting,” she explains. “A good old cup of black tea is also a staple.” As for Rao, his experiences of selling tea on the roads of Delhi are now very well known, though catering to the mixed working crowd of Delhi can never be easy. 

For a young Rao starting out as a tea vendor in Delhi, making tea was something perfected with time and practice. "I studied the art of tea-making from seasoned vendors, learning the nuanced dance of spices and tea leaves that conjures the perfect cup of Chai,” he explains. “A modest beginning sparked my transformation into a chaiwalla with a tale to tell—a story of flavors and cultures interwoven. My crafted tea is not merely a drink—it encapsulates life's very essence.” Of course, each of them have also learned a lot from their interactions with those who drink and appreciate their tea.  

“The visitors are always the curious, kind and are very much in awe of the custom of tea served on a boat and that too run by a lady,” Shantamma explains. “They are very eager to learn more about customs and traditions of the local community around.” She also adds that her method of selling tea in a Vallom is quite unusual because these small boats were predominantly used to transport people and sell trinkets during her childhood. For Devi, who makes her tea with homegrown basil, ginger, and cinnamon, the guests she has served learned more about the local village and the small kingdom’s traditions from her while she mastered her craft. “I learned to make more than eight different varieties of tea from our guests,” she explains. “I also learned that many people do not like sugar in their tea, so I kept jaggery for them.” 

What To pair With Tea? Facing The Snack Conundrum 

Everywhere across India, one of the biggest questions around teatime is “what do we eat with tea today?”. Every region and tea tradition offers up varying answers to this, based on the local traditions of tea brewing and the snacks that go best with it. Being from different parts of the country, our tea experts shared their favourites to offer to guests while serving their signature cuppa. Devi, who lives in the village next to Fort Barwara, pairs her tea with local bread. “We make our homemade bread at the resort,” she says. “I toast it on fire and put homemade butter, salt and black pepper for extra flavour, as we do in the village.” 

“My preferences span the spectrum, encompassing both traditional and contemporary choices,” says Rao. “The classics—Samosas, Pakoras, and Bhajis—invoke nostalgia, harmonizing impeccably with the Chai's robust flavors. Meanwhile, modern additions like biscotti, muffins, and light sandwiches infuse innovation, adding a tantalizing twist to the traditional Chai experience. The essence lies in striking equilibrium between the familiar and the fresh, allowing every sip to resonate harmoniously with the chosen snack.” 

Kerala is known for its delectable snacks, so it is no wonder then that the snacks Shantamma serves with her tea are true representatives of Kerala cuisine. “The snacks I serve are typical of Kerala and go well with a nice hot cup of tea,” she says. “Pazham pori (ripe banana fritters), Parippu vada (a fried snack made with lentils), Ela ada (a traditional rice dumpling with a coconut and jaggery filling), Kumbilappam (a steamed rice cake made with rice flour, jaggery and coconut and steamed within a bay leaf giving it a unique taste): These are a few of the snacks that I pair with tea,” she says.