July 2023

The Nation Reviewed

Chai standards

By Tom Hawking
Illustration of vendor filling cup to sell drink to customer
Pining for an authentic Indian street-corner chai leads the author to a gastronomic carpark in Geelong

If you ask any Melburnian for a selection of locations to spend a Sunday night, chances are that a car park in Werribee will not feature prominently on that list. If your interlocutor is from the Indian subcontinent, however – well, you might find yourself surprised.

I spent a year living in India, and ever since returning home I’ve found myself craving chai. Not chai latte, or some sort of fancy blend of single origin tea with umpteen exotic spices. I mean street-corner chai sold by a grizzled dude who’s been brewing tea on the same corner, in the same battered teapot, for decades. This variety of chai is flavoured with nothing more exotic than a heap of sugar, a piece of ginger that’s been beaten into submission with an antique padlock, and perhaps a few strands of lemongrass. It shouldn’t be as good as it is, but I guarantee that the little glass passed to you over a crowd of chattering regulars will contain a taste sensation.

The other thing to know is that how sensational the taste is depends on what I’ve come to call “the inverse value theory of chai”: the less you pay for it, the better it is. Chai in a restaurant, for which you’ll pay 20 or 30 rupees, is invariably mediocre. An eight-rupee chai from the local chai-wallah will be an order of magnitude better than restaurant fare, but not amazing. A six-rupee chai… now we’re talking. And the semi-mythical five-rupee chai is a mind-altering flavour extravaganza – if you can find it. (More exotic prices, like negative-valued chai – they pay you to drink it – and complex-valued chai, remain an open question.)

Anyway, I’ve always wondered if this theory holds true outside India. And so, on a chilly Sunday night, I find myself standing at the entrance to an unprepossessing car park in Melbourne’s outer west, sandwiched between a Chemist Warehouse and something called Werribee House of Brides and Debs. Over the past few years, this car park has become an unofficial gathering place for food trucks that serve cuisine from across the Indian subcontinent. It’s the sort of place that you hear about via word of mouth: an Indian friend told me about it, and he has kindly driven my partner and me out here this evening.

Those who have also come to dine are a mix of single men and family groups, and are mostly of South Asian origin. I spot one young couple who are clearly on a date – shyly, they order dinner and then slip away to their car to eat. A large group of young Sikh gentlemen in puffer jackets congregate around a tricked-out Hummer, all strutting bravado and youthful energy. (As I pass them, I notice that the vehicle’s boot contains a stash of Coronas and ciders, in clandestine defiance of the “no alcohol” edict on the front fence.) There are many, many personalised numberplates.

Despite the fact that it’s apparently a quiet night, there are still plenty of cuisines to choose from. There are several trucks selling chaat (basically, snacks and street food); two are serving the rich, hearty fare of the Punjab; one is proffering Bengali dishes; several are cooking up “non-veg” food (i.e., meat dishes); there’s an intriguing-looking place that specialises in Afghan food; a truck serving sweets and desserts; and, incongruously, a guy serving those twisted-potatoes-on-a-stick things. My friend orders steamed momos (Nepalese dumplings) and my partner plumps for Afghani chaap, a soy-based protein that falls somewhere between tofu and seitan in terms of consistency.

I decide on the Mumbai classic pav bhaji – toasted bread rolls with a thick, spicy tomato-based gravy. In the name of journalistic rigour, I order this dish twice, from different vendors. The first, from a truck named Chandni Chowk after a market in Delhi, is thick and hearty but perhaps a little heavy on the spices; the second, from Desi Chatka Egg Centre, is the opposite, thin and light on flavour. I contemplate a third attempt, but decide that a commitment to journalistic rigour must be balanced against ensuring that I don’t need to be taken home in a wheelbarrow.

And, anyway, there’s chai to drink. The first place I try serves up a pretty decent approximation of street-corner chai: sweet, frothy, but like every other chai I’ve had outside India, including my own attempts at replicating what I’ve seen chai-wallahs from Kolkata to Karnataka make look easy. It just doesn’t have the depth of flavour that you get in India. (My latest theory is that it’s the teapot that makes the difference. If you’ve been using the same pot for decades, it has to have an effect, surely.)

This cup of chai costs $5, which is a reasonable price in Australia but an eye-watering sum in India. It seems unfair to use the latter for comparison, but the only reference point I have is a shop in Melbourne’s CBD that claims to sell the city’s “first authentic street chai” and charges $8 for a regular-sized cup. This car park chai is better. So far, the cheaper-is-better theory is holding true.

But then, just as I think I’m out of luck, I spot a small handwritten sign at the place from which I saw the young couple order. It spruiks a medium masala chai for the low, low price of $3.50. I stand huddled against the cold wind, which has started to pick up now the sun has gone down, and blow on the chai to cool it down. It has a thick, heady aroma that promises just the right amount of spice. And when it’s finally cool enough to sip, it’s like… well, I’d love to say that the taste is like being back in India, but it’s not. Not quite. The depth of flavour is definitely better, and while it’s not as sweet as you’d get in India, that’s nothing that a generous amount of sugar won’t fix.

So, no, it’s not quite the real thing in the same way that a floodlit car park in Werribee isn’t quite the Indian subcontinent. But for someone craving a taste of home – or a taste of a place that isn’t quite home but is very dear to them regardless – it’s a pretty decent approximation.

Tom Hawking

Tom Hawking is a writer from Melbourne.

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