By Akanksha Singh
Rajkumar has been selling chai in Mumbai for over 20 years. He also sells coffee, but he says it’s chai most people are after.
“The lockdown’s been difficult, but we’ve made it work,” says the chai vendor, who asked that we only use his first name. Originally from the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, Rajkumar had been planning on moving to Dubai before the pandemic hit. “I was told it’s good business,” he says, “but because of [the pandemic] I’ve had to stay here.”
Rajkumar is among a few hundred thousand chaiwalas—tea sellers—in India’s financial capital. In 2018, there were some 12,000 tea sellers in Mumbai, most of whom had migrated from elsewhere in India to live out the so-called “Bombay Dream.” These chaiwalas set up shop behind colleges, beside offices, in train stations and in khau gallis, or “treat lanes.”
Some of these are shops, some are kiosks and others are one-man operations that involve carts or walking around with a tea kettle. The latter will park themselves on a busy intersection, waiting for pedestrian traffic to stop for a cup, or, more specifically, a glass.
It’s in the Name: “Cutting” Chai
Cutting chai is as Mumbai as a caffeinated beverage gets. Cutting chai is masala chai that's been simmered and cut to half its serving size—just enough to fit into a doppio-sized glass. The name also refers to extremely hot, potent tea, from another definition of cutting meaning intense and sharp.
To the average Mumbaikar, cutting chai is to chai what espresso is to coffee: concentrated, efficient and bold in flavor. Still sweet, spicy, aromatic and milky (like masala chai), cutting chai is always served scorching-hot, regardless of how hot or humid the city air is. It’s also always served in single-walled, green-tinged clear glasses that singe the ends of your fingers as you sip, blow, wait, sip and repeat.
Cutting Chai is Economical
Although the origins of cutting chai aren’t specifically documented, Shubhra Chatterji, an award-winning filmmaker who focuses on Indian culinary culture, notes that it is rooted in its streetside appeal. “Cutting chai is not something you have at home—you’d never go to someone’s home and ask for cutting chai,” says Chatterji, adding, “cutting chai is a function of urbanization. Workers who came from smaller towns to [Mumbai] to work in mills, in shops, in factories—cutting chai catered to them.”
And just as street food in Mumbai is filling, quick and cheap, so too is cutting chai. Both time and money are a luxury not afforded to the vast majority of the city. “It’s still tasty, with the sugar, the masalas—the ginger, the cardamom—but it is still hearty chai,” says Chatterji. There’s a belief in these parts that a glass of chai will keep the hunger at bay until it’s time for the next one.
Whereas tea from the local Chaayos, a commercial tea house, costs the equivalent of around $1.88 USD, a roadside tea stall charges between the equivalent of seven and 11 cents.
Philip Lutgendorf notes in his article “Making Tea in India: Chai, Capitalism, Culture,” in Thesis Eleven: Critical Theory and Historical Sociology, that cutting chai was for the city’s “poorer inhabitants.” It stretched one cup into two as a means of goodwill and socialization, and cut the price in half, too.
There is Always Time for a Quick Chai
Kartikeya Sinha, a chef formerly at The Bombay Canteen and Bombay Sweet Shop, and head of production at Artisanal Collective, says he feels cutting chai is “emblematic of Mumbai.”
“The ‘Maximum City’ needs a quick chai, not something to be enjoyed leisurely,” he says. “It both signifies and builds the image of Mumbai as a city on the go.”
Rajkumar says he relies on his repeat customers the most, one of whom comes upward of five, sometimes 10 times a day.
Chai culture in India is an essential part of the day. Even if you’re simply stopping by someone’s house, there’s an unspoken rule that you’ll always have time for chai. Your hosts will say, “At least have chai.” The same is true of the average Indian office-goer: There is always time for chai. Indians are reportedly burnt out on account of toxic workplace culture and long hours. And according to a 2018 report by Swiss investment bank UBS, which surveyed 77 cities globally, Mumbaikars work 3,315 hours a year—the highest in the world.
Tapris—tarp-shaded tea stalls—offer a space to socialize, smoke, shelter from the rain, and, of course, have a chai. These tiny tea stalls are typically attached to the perimeters of office buildings. Regardless of how busy a worker’s day is, they almost always have time for chai, especially for a chai that’s half the size of a regular cup.
In fact, a 2020 WeWork survey of over 3,000 Indians in Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru, found that more than 40 percent of participants missed their tapri chai during the lockdown.
But Why a Glass?
Cutting chai glasses are iconic. But when people started drinking cutting chai in glasses instead of kullars—the small terracotta tea glasses traditionally used for full-sized chai—is again shrouded in mystery and largely undocumented. “I honestly don’t know why,” says Chatterji, hazarding guesses about whether it has something to do with the ease with which glasses can be stacked. “Glass is breakable, too, so it doesn’t make that much sense, does it?”
Sinha proffers transparency—literally knowing how much you get—and the fact that they’re easily transported in bulk from the tapri to an office in a gridded, metal cutting chai carrier (think old-school milk bottle carrier.)
Rajkumar agrees with him; the carriers are still somewhat essential where glassware is concerned. “Glass gets hot, but not as hot as steel does,” he adds. Plus, he adds, they’re a lot easier to keep clean. Kullars were made to be disposed of after a certain number of uses—if they broke on a dirt road, the clay would return to the Earth.
“Maybe, nowadays, there aren’t that many potters, too?” Rajkumar muses.
Regardless, he says, while the pandemic is on, disposable paper cups are the only option. In addition to masking up, when Mumbai chaiwalas reopened after the first wave last year, they were instructed to use paper cups in place of glass ones.
As a possible third wave of COVID-19 looms in India, it’s hard to say where tapri chai culture is headed. For now, though, there’s still time for chai.
Akanksha Singh is an independent journalist based in Mumbai, India. She writes about culture, food and politics, and brags about the time Nigella Lawson called her madeleines “beautiful.” Find her on Twitter: @akankshamsingh
Thanks to Sonaal Bangera for the header image in this article.