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Cutting Chai

cutting%20chai.jpgLater in the afternoon, our driver asked if we would like to make a special visit to “the best chai-maker in Mumbai”. It’s a recognition of the relationship we’ve been able to build this week; he says that it’s somewhere very few foreigners would ever go. I ask you: how can you pass that up?

The area of the chai shop and the shop itself made no attempt at putting on airs. The place was smack in the middle of one of the city's most pedestrian areas. Beyond the general surroundings, the statement that foreigners never visit this area rang true the moment we exited the car. For example, no english words were posted on signs. All hindi here. More telling was the fact that several of the local children out and about could not help but stare at the white guy. My simply saying "hello" rewarded us with an eruption of children's giggling.

After making ourselves known, we proceeded to get that chai. Chai in India means tea and the variety we were after - cutting chai - is particularly associated with Mumbai. Said chai is a savory concoction of milk, sugar, ginger, masala and green tea boiled together in a large steel kettle and served steaming hot. Cutting tea is so called because its flavor is so strong that it is served by the half-glass. ("Cutting" is the transliteration of the hindi word for "half".)

According to its maker, cutting chai is the favorite of locals, but apparently not well-regarded by most foreigners. The strength of the ginger and spices probably create the dissatisfaction. Because of the ginger, in particular, cutting chai burns the throat a bit on the way down. This sensation gave rise to the frequent misconception among foreigners that the burning is that to which cutting refers.

The "best chai-maker in Mumbai" turns out to be nameless to our driver, who refers to him only as "kaka", the hindi word for Uncle and a term of endearment. All of the tourist car drivers visit Kaka in the morning for their half glass of quality cutting chai. (In a private moment later, I shared that “caca”, which sounds exactly the same as "kaka", is not exactly a term of endearment in English. Explaining further appeared to bring our driver some unintended displeasure, so I quickly changed the subject!)

While Kaka was a shy fellow, he seemed quietly pleased that some foreigners had come to appreciate his work. Mostly through points and nods, he walked us through the process of making his chai, which truth be told shares a common thread with sausage: sometimes things that taste great should not be viewed in the making.

As an added bonus, we complemented our chai with a traditional bun-masca, a bun baked with candied fruit and spread with butter. These buns are associated with Iranian bakeries, at which ours were procured. The reason for Iranians cornering the market on buttered buns, however, was not within the means of those around us to explain. No matter. Together with the tea, they tasted great.

When in Mumbai, give chai and bun-masca a try, particularly if you can find Kaka in the process!

Reader Comments (4)

So would you say your glass was half full?
December 14, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterjenni
Te he he. Yes, indeed. Always. Ironically, we've come to the conclusion that Mumbai citizens are, indeed, eternally optimistic. It would be interesting to take a poll of cutting chai drinkers to see how they would respond to the age old notion of glass half empty or glass half full!
December 14, 2007 | Registered CommenterScott
'Kaka' literally means 'uncle' and is overused in Mumbai. After a while, people who become an informal, innocuous but daily part of your life are referred to as 'kaka'. As a term of respect to them. They could be your tailor, your chai-walla or even your taxi driver. One family :)

His name is prolly is something different. Glad you enjoyed the cutting chai and bun maska. cheers!
April 27, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterrenee
Where exactly was kaka's shop? I might have to visit next time I get back home. I miss cutting chai; I can't really make it all that well. :(

I like your blog!
November 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterA.K.

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