In the sea of coffee shops in the Metroplex, premium chai is a challenge to find. But three women — Sapna Punjabi of Be Spiced, Aliya Prasla of Chaiwali and Samina Qazi of Chai Wallah, are moving Dallas’s chai culture in a new direction, bringing this full-bodied South Asian beverage to home kitchens and the first chai cafe in the region.
The chai tradition begins in the home for many South Asians, passed down through generations, often from grandmother to mother to daughter. Punjabi recalls her first cup of chai, which was filled with a third of “normal” (i.e. steeped, without milk) chai, then topped up with two thirds of milk to mellow the caffeine. Her mom served this to her when she was around 7 or 8 years old as she also did for her children. She describes memories of the drink as “associated with fun and sitting down and talking.”
The same went for Prasla and Qazi, who also grew up with chai. “There’s no day that goes on without chai,” Qazi says.
Punjabi, who was born in Mumbai, is a registered dietician and traditional Ayurveda medicine practitioner and a pioneer of the chai scene in DFW. She is the master of the masala (spice blends) sold through her brand, Be Spiced. Punjabi started selling Be Spiced products from her home and in 2012 began appearing at the Coppell Farmers Market.
“I was the first Indian vendor,” she says. “It took several years [to build the brand], but there was a lot of skepticism. From the non-Indians, there was a lot of curiosity.” Her chai masala, made in micro batches from high-quality spices to ensure freshness, is based on her mom’s recipe, the foundation of which is green cardamom, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon and other spices, but tweaked to her taste. “Other recipes may have holy basil or cloves. Every Indian mom has her own recipe.”
She prepares her own cup in the manner she was taught by her mom, applying the Ayurvedic principles she teaches her clients. She boils water in a stainless steel pot then adds the chai masala. Heat “releases the volatile compounds (responsible for the fragrance, flavor and health benefits) that are dormant in the spices,” she explains. The crush-tear-curl (CTC) style of black tea is added next, brewed for a few minutes, then finally she adds sugar and some milk. “Milk is very personal,” she adds, noting that she’s grown to prefer stronger chai with less milk as an adult.
She allows the mixture to boil, then lowers the heat. Under her watchful eye, she raises the heat again to allow the chai to double boil before finally turning off the burner. The spices and tea leaves are removed by pouring the liquid through a stainless steel strainer into a vessel of choice, to be served with a snack.
As a busy mom and entrepreneur, Punjabi still makes a cup of chai for herself each day, multiple times, and for her children — and whoever enters her home. “Chai is pause,” she says. “Chai is connection. It’s taking...a break from whatever you’re doing.”
Chaiwali, which means a person who sells tea, is Texas native Aliya Prasla’s brainchild. She was laid off in February 2022, after working for a decade at a mortgage lender. During the ride home on that fateful day, her coworker asked what she was planning to do. “I’m going to start a chai company and start selling chai at the Dallas Farmer’s Market,” she blurted out. While she didn’t have experience running a small business, she was determined. “I was going to figure it out along the way,” she says. A few days later, after Googling “tea estates in Assam,” Prasla and her mom, a native of Mumbai, made their way to the state in northeastern India, which originated a black tea variety that’s primarily used to make chai. During that trip, Prasla made connections with the tea estates that now supply the CTC tea leaves she uses in each tea bag.
Her brand features different blends of chai, including her take on a masala chai, ginger chai, and what she fondly calls the “bougie” rose chai. There are also seasonal favorites, including pumpkin spice chai and reindeer chai.
Prasla blends her Texan upbringing in her chai routine by pairing it with Ritz crackers instead of the Indian favorite chai biscuit Parle-G. But she enjoys her cup of chai piping hot even in the middle of the blazing Texas summer. “I’m a chai purist!” she exclaims. Her mother insisted one triple-digit summer weekend that no one would buy a hot drink. Surprised by the suggestion of her mostly traditional mother, who wanted her so badly to succeed in her business, Prasla ran with it. And so the iced chai was born, the best-selling product last summer.
It took 30 years of running three gas stations across the Metroplex before Samina Qazi achieved her dream of opening a chai cafe. Chai Wallah is the first of its kind. Its name also refers to a person who makes, prepares, serves or sells tea. It has grown since she opened it in 2020, with drive-thru, pickup, and catering orders. It moved to a bigger location, reopening in March 2023. It is the space of Qazi’s imagination, a tea lounge — a place conducive for spilling the tea. “I wanted it to be fancy, royal, not look like everywhere else. I want people to be comfortable because people take their time when they drink chai.”
Qazi is known for her unbelievably pink Kashmiri chai. The color is created by a chemical process that the tea undergoes in the four to five hours of preparation. Her menu covers the gamut of chai. “You have an everyday chai; the rest is occasional chai.”
At Chai Wallah, a variety of chais — including kadak chai (tea, milk and sugar), Irani chai (strong black tea with milk, cream, and jaggery), Irani kahwa (black tea without any milk or sugar), zafrani chai (saffron infused black milk tea), elaichi chai (cardamom-spiced black milk tea), and Peshawari kawa (saffron, cardamom, and whole spiced green tea) — are served steaming and fresh. The bestselling Kashmiri chai was also adapted into an iced version in the peak of the recent triple-digit summer. It is served in a glass goblet with several ice cubes, topped with rose petals, crushed pistachios, and nuts. Qazi gives her customers a full chai experience with an extensive food menu featuring dishes from her own hometown of Peshawar in Pakistan.
Punjabi stresses how intrinsic chai is to the South Asian culture of hospitality. It is “an inviting beverage, a welcome drink, if you come to any [South Asian] home. It’s an invitation” to connect. While many Americans consume their caffeinated beverages on the go, chai is different. “Chai is more than just having a beverage,” Punjabi says. “The act of drinking is like an extra bonus. But it’s what happens surrounding that beverage that is more important.”