Artisan chai that has brought a whole community together
During my trip to Pakistan this year, I visited the vibrant culinary laneway in Lahore known as "Food Street". What used to be part of a red light district has now been significantly gentrified into a series of colourful restaurants, stalls and markets which represent some of the best in authentic "Lahori" cuisine (my favourite meal: the malai boti from Haveli). Amongst the rows of shops was a stall selling tandoori chai which immediately caught my attention.
The famous Food Street of Lahore. A colourful spectacle with lots of amazing Lahori food.
Inside a large cylindrical kiln were small clay pots sitting in a bright swirling flame. The stall owner would take out a pot before pouring in some freshly brewed chai which had now become karak or sharp tasting. I watched in amazement at how theatrically the chai was being made, as it was poured from a height, then let to froth and bubble whilst the scent of roasted tea leaves and spices such as cinnamon and ginger wafted through the still evening air.
A stall vendor in Lahore making 'tandoori chai' which is served in clay pots.
Upon my return to Sydney, I kept thinking about my chai experience. As I ordered my morning coffee (latte: extra hot, no sugar), I thought about the differences between a coffee and a chai, the lines of which have become somewhat blurred. A coffee is a strongly caffeinated drink, ordered quickly, often with the purpose to activate one's energy levels. A chai on the other hand is to be brewed slowly and sipped even slower to clear and also soothe the mind. Whilst the merging of the two concepts is wonderfully imaginative; from the vast range of infusions found at T2, to a syrup based chai latte or an iced version, desis from the subcontinent are still fiercely opinionated that a chai is a piping hot black tea (or pink if you're from Kashmir) with milk, a few selected spices if preferred and sugar if necessary. After all, that is the official definition of what a chai is.
I guess chai must have been on my mind. As I drove down Pennant Hills Road, I saw the bold signage of Ambi's Chai with the description Afro Punjabi Chai Authentically Brewed.
Ambi's Chai in Pennant Hills, just off Pennant Hills Road and close to the train station.
I dropped by on a Sunday evening and entered the warmly lit, inviting and homely cafe which was delightfully full. A constant stream of locals walked in, smiling cheerfully as they greeted Ambi who recalled each and every one of their names, had a chat, before listening to their orders carefully. Despite it being a packed house, Ambi made sure that everyone had enjoyed their order.
Ambi himself, working his magic. Photo credit: Alicia Scott
As I scanned through the menu, I find it hard to decide. All the items sounded so hearty and tasty, from the: Blonde Chai (when you make a Masala chai and forget to add the spices) to the; Ash's Pure Masala Chai (wholesome spices thrown in together strong and spicy), I could not decide.
The menu at Ambi's Chai
Ambi suggested I try the Brooksy's Chai (bold wholesome chai with cardamom, black pepper and ajwain seeds). My younger sister ordered Axel's Choc-A-Block Chai (caramel chocolate with ginger, black pepper and cinnamon) which Ambi made sure to adjust the pepper to sweetness ratio, after asking her whether black pepper might be too strong.
The flavours were amazing! I loved the edgy spice in my drink and after trying some of my sister's, I loved the chocolate sweetness which went really well with the tea flavours.
Eclectic artwork representing Ambi's story and delicious chai. Photo credit: Alicia Scott
As Ambi grounded up various spices in a mortar and pestle before stewing them carefully in a metal pan over a high flame, we enjoyed the eclectic mix of Punjabi and African artworks along with references to hockey, all of which combined to represent Ambi and his story.
A range of delicious spices ready to be grounded and brewed. Photo credit: Alicia Scott
Ambi warned me that his life story was a bit perplexing, but which turned out to be very intriguing and unique. Having been raised in Kenya and Zambia, Ambi then moved to the UK where he served in the British army during which he was deployed in Germany. Ambi stated that whilst he had not spent much time living in India, he had strong roots there as part of his heritage.
Each cup of aromatic chai is freshly brewed by hand. Photo credit: Alicia Scott
As we drank our chai, I enjoyed some gup shup (juicy gossip that typically accompanies a chai session) with a few locals one of which who referred to Ambi as a dear friend and felt as though visiting his cafe was like visiting a close friend's home for tea. Another described the experience to a late night "chai bar".
Ambi told me that his cafe had a strong community presence and that on busy nights he would not be surprised to find someone behind the counter helping wash dishes or if the milk had run out, someone would gladly grab a few cartons to make sure no one was left without a cuppa. I spoke to one local who had brought in her handmade walnut slices whilst another two young girls were busy on their laptops organising "Christmas at Ambi's" which I was told would be a local event in December where carols would be sung alongside lots of delicious chai drinking (watch their Facebook page!).
Ambi also mentioned that sometimes the whole cafe would come together and have a big chin wag, especially where a 'controversial' topic was touched upon. To me, this perfectly represents the spirit of chai drinking, where it is the essential ingredient for friends and family to gather and share stories, gossip, debate or simply reminisce. After all, that is where the term "spill the tea" originated from, right?
The stewing and brewing process is slow and steady but that is what makes it special. Photo credit: Alicia Scott.
Ambi's warm hospitality, artisan chai and a loving passion for what he does has seamlessly brought together a community of all ages who have grown to become regular chai drinkers. There is even a chalkboard tally of "Chai-mpions" to see who is the most authentic chai drinker of them all (the monthly winner's name is engraved on a plaque so this is serious business!).
The wall of Chai-mpions. You're up against several serious competitors.
Ambi's Chai also has a variety of snacks to accompany your selected brew. Photo credit: Alicia Scott
I told Ambi that he is the perfect example of the old saying "do what you love and money will follow". Ambi smiled, his eyes twinkling, "yes, but I don't do this for money. I have a day job as an educator and this was created on the insistence of my women's hockey team that I used to coach. I started out by bringing one thermal flask of my home brewed chai to training sessions which soon turned into multiple flasks and eventually led to this cafe upon the insistence of the hockey team who raved so much about it".
We both agreed that the beautiful taste and tradition of taking the time to make and drink chai should not be lost with time and due to the hurriedness with which we live our lives. I can see that Ambi has certainly captured and revived the essence of centuries old chai drinking traditions and brought it graciously to Pennant Hills.
It is more to it than just sipping a chai at Ambi's. It is a social outing and an experience!! Watching the ceremony of making the chai stimulates your taste buds and excites your mind while you wait in anticipation for the pleasure of sipping that chai that was made freshly in front of you, for you. Ambi's make the best chai in Australia. I love it. You will love it too.