In a city with so much great Indian food, Ayan Sanyal was nevertheless struggling to find masala chai that reminded him of the drink he grew up with as a first-generation Indian-American. Thus began the journey of Kolkata Chai Co., a new teahouse that launches in the East Village tomorrow, Wednesday, September 18th.
Inspired by summers spent in Kolkata, the chai company will offer a drink menu with more nuance: cardamom coffee ($4.25), cafe de olla (black coffee, canela, piloncillo, $4.25), kesar chai (chai topped with Spanish saffron, $8), masala chai (Assam black tea, organic whole milk, cardamom and fresh ginger, $4 for an 8oz cup), in addition to several others. Bites will also be available and will span avocado toast with mango chutney ($11), “Naveen’s Chaat Toast” (chickpeas, house-made masala and cilantro, $10) and paneer toast ($10), among others.
The business is a partnership between Ayan and his brother Ani, with a mission to dispel the way chai has come to be known in the West: “We had to avoid the typical taste of a chai latte—a syrupy, cinnamon concoction and wanted to highlight the way it’s prepared back home with fresh ginger, cardamom and spices,” shares Ayan, in a press release about the drink that’s so often bastardized at new-fangled coffee houses, ice cream spots and Starbucks, largely targeting white customers. The word "latte" intentionally does not appear on the menu.
Beyond the mission of serving great chai that honors the siblings’ heritage, Kolkata Chai Co. has a more politicized vision for its brand. Tired of the trope of “India-as-a-spiritual-escape,” the cafe vows you won’t find chai made for Instagram bait: no frothing or whip cream available and no appropriated murals of lower-income Indians, as can be found at many new restaurants focused on the cuisine. The team hopes to stay away from romanticized visions of India by creating a spot their diaspora community will be proud of. “Creating a depiction of chai that directly feeds into the ‘Western conception of the exotic, unknown, East’ does little to help South Asian representation in America. It doesn’t reflect our first-generation experience and seems like a shortcut to getting cheap Instagram love,” shares the team on its website’s blog.
It should be noted that most chai companies in New York are not run by owners of South Asian descent. By contrast, the brothers hope Kolkata Chai Co. will be a way to reclaim ownership of who profits off of the drink.
The East Village location of Kolkata Chai Co. is an evolution of the team’s stall that they opened at Riverview Farmers Market in Jersey City back in 2018, with pop-ups at Happy Family Night Market and a drink that eventually garnered the attention of Questlove. It marks a growing interest in recasting the narrative of chai in New York. The Chai Spot opened in Little Italy earlier this year, offering 50% of its proceeds to support women and children of Pakistan.
“Growing up as brown kids in the ‘90s, we had no cultural reference points.There was nobody that looked like us across music, film, TV or sports,” Ayan says. “We’re opening a cafe so that our community has a place to gather, create and grow.”
Kolkata Chai Co. is located at 199 E. 3rd Street New York, NY 10009 and will open to the public tomorrow at 4pm.