Vegan Cutting Chai

Vegan Cutting Chai is a tasty way to enjoy the flavor of Bombay in the comfort of your own home. This sweet, spicy beverage defies all common sense about how to make tea, but it’s the most delicious drink ever.

Cutting Chai is an integral chapter in the story of Bombay street food — the drink you use to wash down those hot, spicy, deep-fried street snacks like vada pav, or pav bhaji, or samosas. This is not a Chai Latte or whatever wimpy version of tea flavored with spices you might be used to here in the West. Cutting Chai is as badass as it gets. It’s a thick, milky, too sweet, too hot, gorgeous mess that could not have originated anywhere but within the belly of this thick, too hot, too noisy, and gorgeous city.

For decades, chai has been sold by vendors who line Bombay’s sidewalks (footpaths), usually in busy working or shopping areas, to keep the city buzzing and ticking. It’s the drink you catch up with old friends over, the drink you share with your smoking buddy to tamp down the first, acrid puff of a cigarette, the drink you glug down before an important test or in the middle of a busy work day to keep your brain working at top speed.

To understand what cutting chai is, or where it gets its strange name, you have to imagine the street lingo of Bombay: a bastardization of Marathi, the language spoken by the city’s natives, Hindi, the language that binds together people from around India who make Bombay their home, and English, a language most of middle class India conducts official business in. If you’ve watched a Bollywood movie with an unshaven “hero” who’s followed everywhere by a couple of unshaven lackeys, you’ve probably heard it, even if you couldn’t tell the difference.

The word “cutting” comes, of course, from English, and the source of its use here goes to the essentially frugal nature of Indians. If you are not Indian and don’t already know this, we Indians (and Indian-born) are naturally excellent at stretching a rupee or a dollar, no matter the hardships we have to endure in the process.

Picture two Indians at a tea stall (why go to a restaurant and pay ten times more for two cups of chai, just because they put in a door and an air-conditioner unit?). They’d likely stand or sit on one of the rickety wooden benches right by the dust-smothered road, car horns blaring in their ears, pedestrians almost knocking them over, sweat running down their faces in little rivulets, all the time keeping up a fluid, animated conversation. When the waiter, a young boy who also serves as an assistant and gofer for the adult who’s actually making the tea, wanders by, one or both would yell at him: “Ek cutting chai laa re!” (Hey, one cutting chai!).

Niceties like “thank you” and “please” are never uttered — nor expected — in Bombay, especially on the streets.

Ingredients

  • 1 ½ cups water
  • 2 tablespoon black tea, try to get one as strong as possible. If teabags are all you have, cut them open and use the loose leaves.
  • 4 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon grated ginger
  • 4 pods green cardamom, crushed and pounded in a mortar and pestle
  • ½ cup soymilk (can substitute with an unflavored creamer)

Instructions

  • In a small saucepan, bring the water, cardamom, ginger and sugar to a boil.
  • Add the tea leaves and continue at a rolling boil for at least two more minutes.
  • Turn off the heat and immediately add the soymilk or creamer at room temperature
  • Cover the saucepan, let everything steep together for a minute or two, then strain into little glass tumblers.
  • Serve hot with samosas, bhujias, or cookies.

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