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[High Tea at Cha Bar, Oxford Book Store, Connaught Place]
From New Delhi's Chai-bars to Old Delhi's Chai-khanas.
[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Most Delhi wallas are tea lovers but only within home. Outside, they talk like coffee connoisseurs. That may be changing. No longer is this humble drink confined to grimy dhabas and JNU addas, or locked behind the counters of 5-star hotel lounges. Chai is becoming cool. Tea bars are the new hotspots. The brewed beverage has started infusing into the milky layer of the Delhi social scene.
Whilst the tea ceremony is costly enough to be trendy it’s not too pricey to be unattainable. We in the know, of course, are at home with the technicalities of the tea menu. First-flush. Pekoe. Lapsang Souchong. Now more are joining the club.
I'm discovering all this in Cha Bar, Delhi's most happening tea lounge at Connaught Place's Statesman Tower. As part of the Oxford Bookstore, it attracts best-selling authors and booklovers. Salman Rushdie has been here. But not all drinkers come to read Jane Austen's tea party novels.
Tea bonding at Cha Bar, Oxford Book Store
A grey-haired corporate boss is flirting with his pretty secretary; a gang of girls is giggling over some nonsense and I'm trying to pay attention to the menu that lists drinks like Bollywood Mix Masala Cha and Truck drivers "100 meel ki" cha. Darjeeling Gold's Bordeaux-Burgundy prose ("exquisite flowery bouquet, musical flavor and distinctive mellow character") tempts me.
Taking advantage of the usually long wait, I settle down on a couch to watch city life outside the glass windows. In the evening rush hour, harried commuters are running after blue line buses that seem to slow down but never stop. I'm worried for these 9-to-6 people. The reverie is broken as the steward appears with a large brass kettle.
His sinewy arms effortlessly pour the pale-gold liquid, through a dainty strainer, into the fine cup. Eager but skeptical, I inhale. The aroma is gentle. I sip. Too mild. I sip again. A stronger sensation this time. A brisk flowery tang –elemental and elegant. The flavour is subtle but so steady that its aftertaste lingers. I sink deeper into the couch.
Only a few hours ago I was tea-timing in a very different ambiance. Paharganj's Main Bazaar, opposite New Delhi railway station, is a claustrophobic haven crowded with cows, cafes and western backpackers. Hebrew and German graffiti is as invasive as rickshaws and autos. But Everest Café, situated in a quite lane off the main street, is meditative with paper lamps. A Nepali-language newspaper with headlines of the royal family massacre is framed next to the bakery counter. The luscious lemon cake, behind the counter, has a taste of spring.
A nice selection of chai is here. I always opt for Ginger Honey tea. The honeyed sweetness is amiably balanced by ginger juliennes' piquant flavour and the effect is just right. But backpackers, the owner told me, usually demand nothing more than Masala Chai.
Masala Chai for two, Everest Cafe
I'm no fan of Masala Chai and did not feel its need at Premier's. Tucked in a tree-lined alley in sleepy Doctor Lane, next to Gole Market, Premier's is not a tea lounge but a high-end showroom selling its branded packaged tea where one is always welcome for tea-tasting. The staff assured me that they won't frown if guests come to taste with no intention of buying.
Spoilt for choices, Premier's
And so many flavours here! Cinnamon, Mint, Apple, Caramel, Banana, Mango, Chocolate, Fruit Punch, Rose, Caramel, Cherry and more. All these chais have Assam Tea, from the first-flush harvest (that yields the most flavourful leaves), as their base.
Jane Austen's tea companion, Premier's
I sit down on the cane sofa, beside a samovar. Staring wide-eyed at the giant tea caddies, as a Japanese-speaking attendant serves Jasmine in a moderately large glass bowl. He insisted on iced tea but I wanted it warm. Though the chai's heady fragrance is soothing, its faint fruity sweetness playful, I continue to feel lethargic. It is eventually the zesty Neelgiri that lifts me from my afternoon languor.
While the Craft House at the nearby Metropolitan Hotel oozes the same character as that of Premier's, here it's not only about the tea. The bar-counter with its cookie tray, and the wooden shelves with their Orange Pekoe and Organic Makabari share the showroom space with spices and silk, perfumes and pashmina. It helps that the place employs two knowledgeable attendants. Try visiting during noon when their work-shift timing clash. As the lady from Imphal prepares the chai, the other explains the art of tea-tasting. ("Don't swallow it all instantly; slosh it loudly around the mouth.")
Tea Hostesses in action, Craft House
Amidst 25 varieties of whole-leaf teas sourced from Darjeeling and Assam, I express a curiosity for Ayurveda Chai – 100% organic green tea with added herbs. But first a self-assessment form to discover my body type, à la Ayurveda. After ticking on confessions like having a slight figure and fickle-minded individuality, I'm declared a Vata. The consequent chai, called Tridosh, exudes a rich bouquet, a subtle flavour and a hint of gooseberry. This is nothing to what comes next. The second-flush Makabari, prepared with 4-minute timing set by a sand clock, is peachy, full-bodied, and rich with a gentle floral aroma. I adore it.
My next stop is Passion – My Cup of Tea. This slickly designed chai bar, smelling of cardamom and crowded with good looking people, is at the fashionable Basant Lok market in south Delhi. The teas are just fine, the samosa dreadful, and the desserts more copious than satisfying.
Now, a confession. Fine teas are all very well, but when I'm in mood for something desi, I simply catch a metro to the ancient quarters of Ballimaran in old Delhi. There the Firdaus Mithai Shop, situated close to Mughal-era poet Mirza Ghalib's haveli, has been brewing honest, milky, robust, and refreshing chai for sixty long years. A sip here completes my chai excursion from New Delhi chairbars to old Delhi chaikhanas.
Where's the chai, Firdaus Mithai Shop
Premier’s 16/7 Doctor’s Lane, Gol Market (011-23349204)
Craft House, Metropolitan Hotel Nikko, Banglasahib Road (011-42500200)
Cha Bar, Oxford Bookstore, Statesman House, 148 Barakhamba Road (011-23766084)
Everest Bakery Café, G. No. 4591, Dal Mandi, Main Bazar, Paharganj
Passion, 60 Basant Lok, Vasant Vihar