“Chai boliye chai…cutting chaiii-yah!”
I was very surprised to hear this familiar cry of the Indian tea vendors, it had nicely and pleasantly broken the monotony of my luxurious buffet breakfast sequence at the ITC Maratha, Mumbai.
How on earth did a “chai-wala” get in here, I wondered aloud and craned my neck to see where the cry came from.
The tone had been toned down to suit the lavish environment but it was the unmistakable cry of the tea vendor selling the early morning glass or cup of tea at a busy railway station or bus stop to daily commuters in India. This was not something you expected to hear or see inside a 5-star hotel. This funny sight created a ton of curiosity from the early breakfasters in the great hall and added a whole new dimension of charm and local character to this magnificent lap of luxury.
A restaurant worker dressed as a traditional tea seller wearing a white kurta pyjama dress and a red turban passed by on the far side of the courtyard near the “Dum Pukht” restaurant, carrying 6 half glasses full of steaming and flavorful masala tea in a ringed metal carrier especially meant to carry glasses of tea. The strong flavor of ginger and cardamom wafted through the scented air and filled my half-awake senses.
The small glasses are designed to serve a half cup of tea - in Mumbai people call this a “Cutting Chai”.
Some say the word “Cutting” refers to the cutting edge of tea meaning it is so strong that a few sips would pick you up. Others believe it refers to cutting a regular portion into more affordable half portions that can be shared amongst more people who are on the go. The element of sharing is embedded in this daily ritual. This is definitely not your relaxed large cup of venti tea, it is a small portion to be sipped quickly and to give you the needed energy to brave the immediate pressures of the day.
Apart from this little feature, the ITC hotels do try to recreate the experience of the grand old palaces where the Kings of the past defined the standard of luxury.
There is marble everywhere possible. Crystal chandeliers embellish the ceilings. Gold and blue furnishings provide the luxurious ambience. Add to this some great restaurants that feature dishes such as “Dum Pukht Biryani” – a dish that is slow cooked for 8 to 10 hours!
Dum Pukht refers to cooking rice, meat, vegetables, herbs and spices in a tightly sealed pot (handi) over a slow fire. This slow process of cooking gets all the ingredients to release their flavors and the sealing of the pot retains all the aromas inside, resulting in a tender and flavorful dish.
Folklore suggests that when the Bada Imambara (Big Fortress in the city of Lucknow) was being constructed, the Nawab (King) instructed that large pots filled with rice and meat be cooked continuously to provide the workers food day and night. Apparently the Nawab liked the aroma of the Biryani that was meant for the poor workers, and asked his royal kitchen to prepare the same for him!
A powerful way to share food amongst hungry workers resulted in an experience that was truly unique and long lasting. Since then there have been hundreds of variations and innovations to the basic Biryani cuisine and these innovations have elevated this cooking to an art form.
The “Chai-wallah” tea seller cum restaurant worker was now at our table and grinning ear to ear.
Ah – so this was a successful skit after all.
I carefully picked one glass from his carrier and took a long and determined sip of the divine warmth and sweet fragrance reminiscent of a bygone era.
Hmmmm…one sip was enough to bring back some really old memories!
On my flight to Mumbai, I had watched a documentary called “6 cup chai”. It is the story of a boy who lives in a slum and works as a tea seller. It is a 7 minute documentary that shows in a powerful way how the kid goes around diligently delivering tea to his regular customers who do not even make eye contact with him. It is clear that the kid is forced to work rather than allowed to study. Meanwhile all he wants to do is to go to school like a regular kid his age.
While I enjoy my glass of cutting chai – the essence of which is the act of sharing, I sincerely wish that good Samaritans around the world do share their fortunes with those that need support. And while the world moves at a rapid pace towards overall prosperity by leveraging cutting-edge technology, I believe this momentous journey should not be undertaken while cutting the corners of any kid’s future.