How Uppma Virdi began Chai Walli in Australia

How Uppma Virdi began Chai Walli in Australia

It could be said that the Indian culture revolves around chai. Chai is drunk everyday – at home, on the streets, for happy and even sad occasions. There's a running joke that Indian's drink more chai than water – they commonly argue that there’s already water in chai, so what do they need to drink water for? Chai is served to anyone and everyone, regardless of where they come from. It's a common language which brings people together.

Chai is sold on every street corner in India, and typically by men, called Chai Walla's and sometimes women, called Chai Walli's. Due to the abundance of chai available on the streets, each vendor will have their own secret recipe, adding things to their chai to differentiate and distinguish it from the many others. Street chai always has black tea, but the spices included will vary. We believe all woman and men have a Chai Walli or Walla in them, that innate ability to bring warmth and a community wherever they go, which is what chai does.

Uppma has been greatly influenced and inspired by her grandfather, whose opinions and thoughts were very much ahead of his time. He believed in equal rights for women, he believed in education and he was strongly against racism. He hailed from a village of farmers, and was the first person in his village to send his daughters to receive a higher education. He himself was constantly studying, as he understood the importance that studies and knowledge would have in life. He was an Ayurvedic and Homeopathic doctor, which is where Uppma learned about spices and their remedial effects on the body. She also developed a passion of Ayurvedic teas which is what her grandfather specialised in.

Uppma never had caffeinated chai growing up – her grandfather’s chai blends consisted of an array of spices, but no black tea as her family didn't want the young kids to drink much caffeine. But whenever her parents had guests over, she would sneakily come around with a biscuit to dip into their delicious brown caffeinated chai as she wasn’t allowed to drink it.

As a first generation migrant, Uppma, like all first generation migrants, didn’t quite know where and how she fit in with everyone else. She felt quite unsettled, and unsure of her place. On her scholarship to study Commerce and Law in Graz, Austria, she met many amazing people who were proud of their culture and identity, and it instilled in her a want and need to be proud of her own. Her friends would share their traditional foods, drinks and customs, and she started to cook, make chai and come together with all these people through her love of Indian chai and food. She found that making chai was comforting and homely, and began to carry around spices whilst travelling to make chai in every hostel or bnb she stayed at to connect with others.

When she returned from her travels, the friends she’d made would exclaim about how much they missed her chai, so she would make up some batches and send it to them. They called her the tea lady and so she directly translated this into Hindi and wrote “chai walli” on her bags. Her chai was so popular amongst her friends it prompted her to thinking, maybe other people might want some. Blessed with the knowledge of her grandfather's blends and fuelled with a rage at the "not chai" chai that was being sold on our supermarket shelves and cafes, she began doing chai stalls where she would sell her grandfather's blends that she recreated.  And from there she grew a simple idea into a passion driven business.

Uppma used social media as a platform to educate people about chai, the traditions surrounding it and India's deeply embedded culture about it. She gained a loyal following, because people didn’t post about this kind of chai. For Indians, this kind of chai is part of the everyday life so it wasn’t considered something to capture. For Australian's, this kind of authentic chai constituted a very small part of the chai market. Traditional authentic Indian chai isn’t very well known in Australia. Her Instagram connected and resonated with people who had been to India, Indians, and south-east Asians who have the pleasure of indulging in authentic masala chai. For Australian's, it was a culturally educating experience, because Uppma was sharing an entire culture through her humble cup of chai.


Initially, she thought the idea would sell itself, that customers would just want to buy her chai, but she slowly started to realise that traditional Indian chai was not a familiar product and concept in Australian. She needed to educate people more, and that's what she did. Through her workshops, educational services like bespoke chai glasses and social media images where she travels to India to visit her suppliers and interview chai makers on the streets of India.

Chai Walli was a simple idea that she wanted to grow – she wanted to share this drink that’s so pervasive in India, and to share the chai blend that was inspired by her grandfather. She struggled to find good, authentic Indian chai in Australia – nothing tasted quite the same as the blends crafted by her grandfather, or by herself drawing on the knowledge he passed down to her.

Today, Uppma has grown Chai Walli so much so that she needed to leave her job as a lawyer to manage the growing business. Chai Walli has expanded their range to be a full serviced tea business focusing on supporting small farmers in India so they buy high quality teas from organic tea estates around India. She continues to carry on her grandfather's legacy through her range of Ayurvedic teas formulated using Ayurvedic principles. Chai Walli has won many awards for their masala chai and tea range, from best chai at the Royal Hobart Fine Food Awards, being a finalist for the Health Food Product of the Year at the Australian Food and Beverage Awards to Uppma being a Forbes 30 under 30 and being invited by the Australian High Commission to launch International Women's Day all around India this year to inspire creativity and change.

Uppma, influenced by her grandfather, education and experiences, feels strongly about empowering women, and in helping and encouraging migrants to find themselves and their place in the community by touching back into their heritage and where they come from.

We invite you to join the Chai Walli journey online, bring the Chai Walli blends into your home to share with your friends and family. Create memories with our blends, begin new friendships over a cuppa and support an Australian business that is more than just selling a bag of tea, they're creating a movement.


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Dhevaksha Naidoo

Dhevaksha Naidoo

Beautifully real and inspiring story Uppma. You are AMAZING!!! X

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