A man stands at a green wooden platform at the edge of a busy street. On his counter he has two small burners, a rudimentary mortar and pestle (much more basic than the one linked here), a bag of black Assam tea, a bag of sugar, a bag of ginger and a cup of cardamom pods. What do you want? He’ll make it for you. Not too sweet? Heavy on the ginger? He’ll pound it to a pulp, then toss it into the frothy brew, which bubbles in the pot before him.
This is the way we find chai on the streets of Kolkata. It’s a way of life, and most any walk across town (or even across the street) would be incomplete without a cup of chai. Any waking hour of day or night, Indians gather around chai stalls, stealing quick and tiny sips, then moving along. Many larger chai-wallahs serve their customers while men (and often boys) squat on the sidewalk nearby, grinding spices. People here say it is not the origin of the spice that matters so much as how it is ground — always by hand, and always well. Spice vendors in the market pride themselves on their hand-ground goods; the task is accomplished right there on the ground beside the customers.
Thus, each tea takes on its own subtle, unique flavor. But unlike many of the packaged and mass-produced chais sold in the West these days, almost all Kolkatan cups of of tea are sweet and milky with mild hints of spice.
And this is key: chai is almost always sold in tiny terracotta cups, pictured above and below. These here are rather big cups; most are even smaller. Imagine drinking your tea from a miniscule flowerpot. I find it lends a somewhat earthy, slightly dusty character to the brew, and I’ve come to like it immensely. I might have to buy a few souvenir cups for the next time I try to duplicate this chai at home in New Mexico. (10 small cups sell for 1 rupee, about 2.5 cents; three made-to-order servings of chai sell for 6 rupees, about 15 cents)