Every 500 miles, a yard or two of the roadside brew


7 Jan 2017

On all of our India photography tours, one of the experiences — both personal and photographic — that I look forward to is visiting an Indian dhaba (roadside tea stall) for a cuppa. It’s a simple thing, but here, for the grand investment of ₹5 (about sixpence British, or 7¢ US) you get a ringside seat as one of the classic staples of Indian life unfolds before your eyes and your waiting camera.

If you like your Orange Pekoe or your Darjeeling to have only the briefest of acquaintances with filtered water at a just-so temperature, served black with a slice of lemon and presented in bone china, move on swiftly because you won’t find it here. Chai is tea the way a billion Indians drink it: a mix of water, milk, sugar and coarse black tea leaves, boiled slowly for ages to extract the deep tannins, then air-streamed from a pourer held a yard above your thick-walled glass or, better yet, your kasora — a small disposable mud pot. Enjoy.

If you want to get fancy, the options are few. Masala chai adds in a hefty sprinkling of exotic spices: cardamom, cloves, ginger or more rarely cinnamon. As someone who likes his tea black and steeped for three minutes, chai ought not to be quite my cup of tea but as always, what you’re drinking is just one of the ingredients flavouring the dhaba experience.

Here unfolds a tapestry of Indian life. Grab a seat on a rough wooden bench or ancient plastic stool and gawp. The busy accountant sneaking in his usual refresher on the way to work. The truck driver, surly and tired from hours of sitting and dodging sacred cows and grumpy camels hogging the road. The chatty locals who seem to have nothing to do beyond sitting around smoking, slurping and joshing around. The stall owners cheerfully brewing, serving and sharing in the jokes. The money changing hands. The banging of spoons on pots. It’s all there — and if you choose the moments when the sun is close to the horizon and lancing in under the plastic-sheet canopy, it’s fun seeing what your camera makes of it.

For the locals, the tea’s strong. For the truck drivers looking for an eye-opener to keep them alert for the next leg of their trip, it’s super-strong — the so-called 500-mile tea, guaranteed to perk you up for at least the next 500 miles.

They say that the strength of the steaming leaf-brew is aimed at different types of customer. For the locals, it’s strong. For the truck drivers looking for an eye-opener to keep them alert for the next leg of their trip, it’s super-strong — the so-called 500-mile tea, guaranteed to perk you up for at least the next 500 miles. Whether that’s true or not, the dhaba experience captures a brew of flavours from the real India.

The shot above came from a dawn raid on a wholesale vegetable market in Udaipur, Rajasthan, but you’ll encounter the dhaba experience everywhere in India, from the dusty deserts of Rajasthan to the two-mile-high valleys of Ladakh. See you at the next truck stop.