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Masala Chai and Mumbai’s Cutting Chai Culture

By Akanksha Singh


Rajkumar has been selling chai in Mumbai for over 20 years. He also offers coffee, but he says it’s chai that most people fancy.

“The lockdown’s been tough, but we’ve managed,” says the chai vendor, who asked that we only use his first name. Originally from the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, Rajkumar had plans to relocate to Dubai before the pandemic struck. “I heard it’s good business there,” he says, “but due to the pandemic, I’ve had to stay put.”

Rajkumar is among the hundreds of thousands of chaiwalas—tea sellers—in India’s financial hub. In 2018, there were approximately 12,000 tea sellers in Mumbai, many of whom had migrated from other parts of India in pursuit of the so-called “Bombay Dream.” These chaiwalas set up their stalls near universities, offices, train stations, and in food alleys.

Some of these are proper shops, some are kiosks, and others are solo ventures with carts or simply walking around with a tea kettle. The latter often position themselves at busy junctions, awaiting pedestrians to pause for a cup, or more precisely, a glass.

The Essence of “Cutting” Chai

Cutting chai is quintessentially Mumbai. It's masala chai that's been brewed and reduced to half its serving size—just enough to fit into a small glass. The term also alludes to an extremely hot, robust tea, with "cutting" suggesting intensity and sharpness.

For the average Mumbaikar, cutting chai is to chai what an espresso shot is to coffee: concentrated, efficient, and rich in flavour. Still sweet, spicy, aromatic, and milky (like masala chai), cutting chai is always served piping hot, regardless of the city's climate. It’s also always presented in single-walled, green-tinted clear glasses that are almost too hot to hold as you sip, pause, sip again.

The Affordability of Cutting Chai

Although the origins of cutting chai aren’t well-documented, Shubhra Chatterji, a renowned filmmaker who delves into Indian culinary culture, believes it's tied to its street appeal. “Cutting chai isn’t something you'd have at home,” says Chatterji, “It caters to the urban workers who migrated to Mumbai.”

Like Mumbai's street food, cutting chai is quick, satisfying, and affordable. A belief persists that a glass of chai can stave off hunger until the next one. While tea from a local commercial tea house might cost the equivalent of about £1.40, a roadside tea stall might charge only a few pence.

Philip Lutgendorf, in his article in the journal 'Thesis Eleven', mentions that cutting chai was for the city’s less affluent residents. It stretched one cup into two as a gesture of goodwill and halved the price.

Always Time for a Swift Chai

Kartikeya Sinha, a chef with experience at renowned Mumbai establishments, believes cutting chai symbolises Mumbai. “The bustling city needs a quick chai, not a leisurely one,” he says. “It epitomises Mumbai's fast-paced nature.”

Rajkumar says his regular customers are his mainstay, with some visiting five to ten times a day. Chai culture in India is integral. Even during a brief visit to someone's home, there's an unspoken rule that there's always time for chai. The same holds for the average office worker in India. Despite the long working hours, there's always a moment for chai, especially if it's half the size of a regular cup.

In fact, a 2020 survey by WeWork found that over 40% of participants in major Indian cities missed their local chai stalls during lockdown.

But Why a Glass?

The iconic glasses used for cutting chai are a mystery. When people began using glasses instead of the traditional terracotta cups for chai remains largely undocumented. Sinha suggests the transparency of the glass and the ease of transport might be reasons. Rajkumar agrees, adding that glasses are easier to clean and maintain than the traditional clay cups.

However, during the pandemic, disposable paper cups became the norm. As India faces the possibility of another wave of COVID-19, the future of the local chai culture remains uncertain. For now, though, there's always time for a chai.

Akanksha Singh is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai, India. She writes about culture, food, and politics. Find her on X: @akankshamsingh. Special thanks to Sonaal Bangera for the header image in this article.

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