“In New York, you’ll have to venture pretty far to get a good cup of chai,” says Kolkata Chai Co.’s Ayan Sanyal. It’s no secret that chai has been prey to exoticism for decades. The Americanised chai latte and other appropriated versions have little in common with the hot, brewed drink that’s so pivotal to South Asian culture. But how stark is the difference really if we were to talk flavour?
“It’s too sweet, with very different notes. It’s really nothing like Indian chai and the cha that you find in Kolkata’s streets, which is why our brand attempts to offer that authenticity and a slice of our culture, which I’ve looked for here,” Sanyal breaks down.
In 2019, Ayan along with his brother Ani, opened up a chai cafe in New York’s East Village, named Kolkata Chai Co. The brand eventually started retailing its flagship item — a Masala Chai mix that lines up a bold and organic Assam black tea, black pepper, green cardamom and cinnamon. The label’s core idea was to cut through the appropriation and preserve the integrity of chai, as served in the streets of Kolkata or in any Indian household.
Though the Sanyal brothers were born in the United States, they have fond memories of spending summers in Kolkata. The city’s street food culture has inspired the label in some key aspects. My Kolkata sat down with Ayan Sanyal to learn more about the NYC label:
Tell us how Kolkata Chai Co. came about
Our parents left Kolkata for Massachusetts in the eighties. Being first-generation Indian-Americans, we were straddling two cultures and we were trying to figure out who we were, as it usually happens. In 2017, I travelled the world a little bit, I was amazed by the food scenes in Italy and Paris. But I figured Indian food culture is just as vibrant as European food culture. We are just not as vocal about it maybe.
In New York City, for instance, which is one of the biggest cities in the world, you’d have to venture pretty far to get a good cup of chai. The ones you get in coffee shops are nothing like the ones you find on the streets of Kolkata. For us, it’s been about trying to recreate the experience that’s authentic to what we have back in India and offering it in maybe a premium retail space.
What’s the core difference between the chai we have at home and the ones you find here?
I’d say the spice profile is the main difference. The chai you find here uses that aspect differently. For instance, Starbucks serves blends that are cinnamon-forward or designed around pumpkin spice or nutmeg. It’s really sweet. The chai I’ve had in Kolkata is more of a ginger-cardamom base, and that’s what we tried to recreate.
Was it difficult selling it to people who think they know chai?
It was interesting, when people experienced it for the first time, they were like, ‘wow.’ It was quite a moment, they weren’t expecting it to be so different because they’re used to a really different flavour.
How did Kolkata inspire your label?
We would spend our summers in Kolkata as kids. I remember going to Maharani tea shop for the chai and my mum would take us to Rabindra Sarovar Park, and back then I didn’t really know how meaningful it all was. I eventually realised that our experience at home was really significant to our identity. I remember experiencing the chai on Kolkata’s streets, I feel people who make the chai are nothing less than Michelin-grade talents. The street food cultures in Kolkata and New York are equally vibrant with just a few key differences. And with our brand, we’ve always wanted to stick by the traditional taste of what we had back at home.
How do your parents feel about your label?
They’re happy… initially they may have said something along the lines of, ‘why do you want to sell chai?’. But they get it now.
The brand recently closed $1M with its first fundraiser. Tell us how you want to scale up.
There are so many brands who’re keen on featuring our chai and we want to reach out and actually let people have access to our products. We want to make it easier for people to experience the real elements of South Asian culture and we are already looking at expanding our e-commerce routes, making key hires to our core team and scaling up distribution which could be crucial to our visibility.
Check out Kolkata Chai Co.’s podcast Get Rich or Chai Tryin’.