The cup that cheers: Exciting chai revivals in Sydney and Melbourne

We’re seeing a back-to-basics approach to chai, thanks to new outlets serving the authentic item. RAJNI ANAND LUTHRA reports (with Bhavya Pandey)

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Move over, vanilla chai, chai latte and dirty chai. The old chai like we always knew it, is new again.

With a mushrooming of chai outlets in Sydney and Melbourne, the desi cuppa could soon be giving coffee a run for its money as a hot beverage option.

Freshly brewed over a stove with milk (there’s not an espresso machine in sight), with different spices thrown in to evoke different moods, and with sugar if you prefer, the chai varieties at these new retailers are comforting and uplifting. And thoroughly warming, given the icy blasts we’ve been having lately.

As every chai lover knows, good chai is not just a beverage but an emotion – it’s nostalgia in every cup.

Home is where the chai is.

Dropout Chaiwala, Elizabeth St, Melbourne

A Melbourne-based chai store providing authentic style blends in a takeaway range, Dropout Chaiwala (or DCW) serves chai in eight different flavours – classic cutting chai, cardamom, masala, ginger, lemongrass, saffron and its exclusive ‘Mystery chai’.

No prizes for guessing how the company got its name: CEO Sanjith Konda famously dropped out of his last semester of business studies to start the venture with three mates Arun, Sushma and Preetham.

sanjith konda founder of dropout chaiwala melbourne
Sanjith Konda (Source: Supplied)

“I was looking to meet current market needs, especially in the international student space,” Sanjith told Indian Link. “A chai café sounded like a great idea – not just because we missed authentic Indian chai, but also as we needed a space outside uni where we could meet like-minded others.”

Of course he was also inspired by his own mum’s chai.

dropout chaiwala outlet interior
(Source: Supplied)

And so, rather than give modern twists to the native Indian beverage, the goal became to keep the product original. “This has worked well, given our bestseller is Masala chai. We make it with star anise, pepper, clove and cardamom.”

Like all their chais, this one is refreshing as well as healthy.

“Customers tell us the chai reminds them of home,” Sanjith smiled. “It’s their kind of Starbucks!”

DCW has partnered with student organisations and other social startup groups.

“The plan is to disrupt the beverage market in Australia with our range of Desi Chai,” Sanjith said.

READ ALSO: Indian spices and Australian botanicals: a unique gin collaboration

dropout chaiwala staff
Source: Supplied

ChaiShai Café at Fitzroy, Melbourne

Owner-operators Riddhima Sachdeva and Sahil Kapoor, both tea connoisseurs, offer you 22 different varieties of chai to pick from – including the classic masala, kadak, sweet cinnamon and vanilla almond.

drinking tea at chai shai
Source: Supplied

The live brewing of chai, as well as the grinding of spices in the traditional style in mortar and pestle, brings in a touch of theatre for new customers and tourists. It also advertises the fact that each cup is handmade fresh, and no premixes are used.

chai shai melbourne
Source: Supplied

“Our teas come straight from the estates in India,” Riddhima told Indian Link. “The produce is preservative-free and is grown in healthy soil with sustainable farming methods. I’m proud to say we are giving a helping hand to small growers based in India.”

Besides the Indian tea, ChaiShai serves cold brew liquors in various flavours including rose, hibiscus, jasmine and passionfruit. Brewed for over 16 hours, these are served with traditional Indian snacks.

chai shao fitzroy
Source: Supplied

Ambi’s Chai Bar, Pennant Hills, Sydney

List your favourite chai spice, and you’ll find it at Ambi’s. Ginger. Pepper. Lemongrass. Cardamom. Ajwain. Fennel. Take your pick.

Or you would like to try haldi dood, a perfect winter after-dinner drink, rarely found on a restaurant menu. Called ‘Turmeric Chai with no Tea’ over here, it is milk brewed with ginger, turmeric, and spices.

Ambi’s Chai Bar is less than three years old but is fast becoming quite the late evening hangout spot for locals in Sydney’s North Shore.

ambi's chai staff
Source: Facebook

The look – noir and dramatic – attracts you immediately, and the eclectic music and low lights add to its atmosphere as a ‘bar’ rather than a restaurant.

“That was the intent from the get-go,” proprietor Ambi Thind told Indian Link.  “The experience here is more like wine tasting, as I introduce the chais to those who are coming to it anew. I’ll get them to start with something gentle, and then move them up.”

In terms of the décor, Ambi reveals it is an amalgam of early influences. “I’ve recreated the feel of the corner shop in Africa where I grew up; the ‘cha di hatti’ in Punjab, and the shebeens (illicit drinking clubs) that were dark and noisy and smoky.”

ambi's chai facade
Source: Facebook

The chai of course, has to be authentic. “We can’t filter-make it, and we won’t use urns. We’ll take time to make our teas, so don’t expect your chai in a hurry. We want you to sit back, relax, reflect, gossip, flirt…”

And yet, Ambi is not averse to trying a new thing or two with his chais. Like adding chocolate. Or trying oatmilk, which he resisted like a true-blue Punjab da puttar because “it’s just not authentic!” He ultimately gave in because his staff insisted a plant-based option was needed. Brewed with gud (jaggery), fennel and ginger, Ambi’s oatmilk tea has become a runaway hit.

“It creates a sense of nostalgia, taking you back to the cold wintry mornings in Punjab. It’ s mineral rich and unprocessed, and therefore earthy. It was worth it for the effort that went into the R&D – we learnt how to eliminate the water completely, and not to boil, but just bring it to a bubble.”

READ ALSO: Unique Indian restaurant names in Sydney and Melbourne

ambi's chai customer
Source: Facebook

Ambi’s has 10 staff currently, all of them young folk that the boss likes to call ‘spice girls and spice guys’.  They’re mostly non-Indian but are all ardent chai lovers. They contribute to the hip factor of the place, such as adding a Chai-mpionship Wall, reggae nights, and events such as Ugly Xmas sweater contests.

Ambi himself comes to chai after a storied career – in the British Army serving in Europe, beef and dairy farming in Africa, playing hockey across the globe, and currently running an empire of educational institutions with centres in NSW, QLD and Dubai.

ambi thind of ambi's chai
Ambi at work (Source: Supplied)

Talk to him and he’ll tell you a yarn about being inspired to open Ambi’s Chai Bar by a women’s hockey team that he coached in Pennant Hills.

Sit back and enjoy your Indian tea here; maybe tuck into some Indo-African fusion food – how about Chole and chaull? Or the Haraka wrap?

You’ll leave knowing you’ll be back.

READ ALSO: Having your chai and EATING it too

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