NYC's Kolkata Chai Co. Wants to Reclaim Chai's Narrative
Stop calling it “chai tea,” implore brothers Ayan and Ani Sanyal, proprietors of Kolkata Chai Co., a tea shop in New York City’s East Village. They echo the sentiments of many exasperated Indians who know that the word “chai” means tea; there’s no need to be redundant. Especially about something key to Indian culture.
“Venturing out in the afternoon for chai is a family affair in India,” says Ani. “Over masala chai, we’d talk with friends, crack jokes, exchange news for hours. ‘Chai tea’ was introduced to this country by people with no connection to those cultural touch points, or to what we were drinking.”
It is this disconnect of chai as a product versus its cultural legacy that the brothers hope to redefine. First-generation Indian-Americans, the Sanyals started Kolkata Chai Co. as a pop-up in 2018, inspired by regular family trips to India and their parents’ native city, Kolkata. After a year of growth, marketing research, and recipe development, the brothers opened their doors in September, laser-focused on their signature product, masala chai.
The differences between the chai derived from syrup concentrates or created for American-style lattes are seemingly small, but make a difference, says Ayan, who crafts the shop’s base chai. American versions rely heavily on cinnamon as the keynote flavor, but the nuance of Bengali-style chai derives from fresh ginger and both green and black cardamom. The brothers note that in India, milky masala chai is readily available from street vendors (often overly sweetened to hide the imperfections of re-steeped black tea), so they’ve adjusted their offerings to be less rich but no less nuanced.
“Creating the chai is a balance,” says Ayan, “between the bitter tea, the sugar, and the rich spices.” Kolkata’s chai starts with a base of Assam black tea, produced in the CTC (“crush, tear, curl”) processing method in which whole black tea leaves are crushed, torn, and curled into tea granules, which produces more consistent flavors. “It’s ideal for balancing with strong spice flavors,” Ayan notes. The requisite cardamom and ginger are added, and whole milk and sugar complete the mix, which is redolent with fragrance and nuance.
Also on the menu is nimbu chai, which the Sanyals describe as “Bengali espresso,” featuring the signature base tea with fresh lime juice, mint powder, spices, and chile powder. The kesar chai, flourished with saffron threads, is buttery, a “luxurious addition to the menu” for those familiar with the theatrical presentation found on Kolkata’s streets.
Kolkata’s signature chai blend was created for customers seeking flavors of home. Though Indians were drinking masala chai blends long before British colonizers came, it was Britain that exploited the tea trade and introduced it to the Indian subcontinent. In the end, “Indians became hooked on tea,” says Ani, “but we made it our own.”
Ultimately, a healthy respect for the origins of chai—Ayan worked in the tea gardens of Assam and Darjeeling to learn about ethical sourcing, fair trade, and responsible labor practices—drives the mission and growth for Kolkata Chai Co. The brothers insist on telling their own story, their way, in order to expand the narrative around chai. “We’ve been privileged to be able to travel to India and learn about our culture,” says Ani, “but we don’t want to dominate—we’re sharing other stories in the diaspora, too. We want to listen to other people.”
Joseph Hernandez is a New York City-based writer who’s written for The Wall Street Journal and more.