Monday, April 30, 2007

Makkhan Wali Chai

At the beginning, a disclaimer. This post is not about the Tibetan yak-butter tea, but a more plebian, in-your-face iteration a shop in Lal Kuan sells. I confess I am inordinately proud of it. One, it makes for a fantastic drink, especially on a cold winter evening. Then again, the idea of huge amounts of butter dissolved in tea is so absurd, most people refuse to believe it is actually fit for human consumption. But most importantly, I take sole and exclusive credit for its discovery. No newspaper article, no tip-off from friends, nothing!

I chanced upon it a little more than a year ago. We had just shifted to a new house, and some electrical fixtures we had bought turned out to be defective. So I went to Bhagirath Place to get them changed. The evening was so pleasant that taking the Metro from Old Delhi (now Chandni Chowk) station on the way back seemed downright boring. Instead, I decided to take a long walk past Fatehpuri and Lal Kuan, down to Chawri Bazar station.

At twilight, the food-stalls in Lal Kuan were just waking up. The individual smells of Kababs, Biryani, Korma, and strange curries unique to that locality were discernible, but only just. Behind the stalls, the metal and hardware shops continuted to do a brisk trade. To my disappointment, Moinuddin Ustad's hadn't opened yet. From another little kiosk, I treated myself to some run-of-the-mill buff Tikka at one Rupee a skewer. I was about to amble off, when I spotted this tea shop with a big sign saying "Makkhan Wali Chai". Now what the hell?

The shop's ratelist stoked my curiosity still further. It advertised regular tea for three Rupees fifty, Taj Mahal tea for four, regular coffee for five, while Makhhan Wali Chai and Coffee were marked ten bucks. I asked the character behind the counter what this was all about. 'Just the same as your regular tea or coffee, except that us mein makkhan milaya jaata hai (we add butter to it).' This sounded so, well, off-putting that I decided I simply had to try it out. I ordered a Chai, and stood back to see what the character did after that.

And oh, the character sure didn't disappoint me! From a spout in the coffee machine, he let fly a jet of boiling water into a steel jug, and tossed in a tea bag, sugar and milk. While the tea was steeping, he ran across the road and came back with a regulation 100 gm slab of your ordinary table butter. This he proceeded to peel and chop into four equal chunks. He tossed one of the chunks into the jug and stirred it in thoroughly with a spoon. Once he was satisfied that the right consistency had been achieved, he poured the concoction into a styrofoam glass and handed it over to me.

My gag reflexes were working overtime by then. Twenty-five grams of butter was bad enough as it was; now how the hell was I supposed to drink the lot?! But then, I couldn't bear the thought of ten Rupees wasted. As it happened, I was particularly hard up at that time, and heck, ten Rupees meant a lot. Commending my soul to St Benedict of Nursia, the patron saint of poison victims, I ventured a sip.

It was a revelation, is all I can say. The butter added an altogether new dimension to what was essentially a very ordinary cup of tea. Its fattiness counterbalanced the coarse tannins of the tea, yielding a brew surprisingly light on the the palate. Even the salt in the butter played a useful role; it negated the overpowering sweetness characteristic to this sort of tea.

On another occasion, I tried out the Makkhan Wali Coffee. I had expected it to be something even more spectacular. In this, I was disappointed. It was palatable, yes, but nothing extraordinary.

I've had many glasses of Makkhan Wali Chai since that day. My friends and I acknowledge it as the perfect cap to an evening of uninhibited Kabab-bingeing. As indeed do the local denizens. Its popularity continues unabated, amidst Kabab-walas jostling for space and the clatter and confusion of neighbouring ironmongeries. Incongruous surroundings, and housing a truly incongruous discovery.


Anonymous said...

I am left wondering how yak-butter tea is any less plebeian than this concoction?
~ Harneet

Abhik Majumdar said...

Point taken! At the same time, by Delhi standards yak-butter tea is much more exotic than the Lal Kuan version.

You might ask, isn't our own makkhan wali chai exotic enough, since only one place in Delhi is known to serve it? I suppose exotic value also depends a good deal on the ingredients used.

Table butter is available in most parts of Delhi. On the other hand, I haven't seen too many dairies round here stocking Yaks.

Scout Finch said...

Your inspired account of your first brush with makkhan wali chai is indeed motivational enough to make one try it out. I'm only too far away, and so shall have to be content with making myself a cup. But of course, if I do go to Delhi, I have every intention of trying it out!

Abhik Majumdar said...

I shall drink to that!

rainbeau_peep said...

Nope. Still not convinced. Just reading this is clogging my arteries.
(A lovely read, notwithstanding).

Pooja said...

I have enjoyed reading your blog so much, I dont know which post to leave a comment on... this seems appropriate, since its atleast something I might someday try. Most others, being of the nonvegetarian variety, are lost on me. however I do share your enthusiasm for street food in general, and of food expeditions laced with visits to sites with a history, in particular, especially since they are possible in this city like in no other.
way to go... keep up the good work. and list more vegetarian fare so I might try it in my next trip. :-)

ys said...

Hmm, will make my version and see :)

Wings of Harmony said...

Reading this stoked my imagination that much! Have to make this and try some day! :D


Abhik Majumdar said...

Do tell me how it turned out :)

Anonymous said...

Wow. I had no idea. I'm not sure I'd be adventurous enough to try it, but still (I wasn't adventurous enough to even attempt to taste gudgud chai when we were travelling in Ladakh in the 80s, though my parents said that it tasted more like a rich soup than tea). If I remember correctly, the Ladakhis actually put salt instead of sugar in gudgud chai, along with the yak butter.

Abhik Majumdar said...

Thanks so much for the comment, Madhu. For a change it's you commenting on my blog, not the other way round :)

I agree it takes some spleen to try out a concoction like that. I mean, I myself had the guts to try it out solely because I had already been suckered into it! Haven't had the chance to try the Ladakhi chai yet. But this one doesn't taste anything like soup. It tastes very much like tea. I've had it several times since then, and it's never failed to disappoint.