Chai from a clay cup – that raw, slightly bitter, textured taste of earth, mixed with gingery-sweet milk tea – is the taste of India. An Indian adventure would be incomplete without the experience of sipping chai at an open-air chai stall, and the gratifying, childlike pleasure that comes with tossing your cup and hearing the “pop!” as you watch it hit the ground and break into bits.
All over India, potters spin these small cups out of river clay, which are then sun-dried, half-baked in an open fire and delivered to local chai stalls. Before pouring your chai, chai wallahs customarily tap the unglazed cup to dislodge any loose dirt particles. Even so, you inevitably ingest a small bit of melted clay. We find the gritty taste enhances the character of the chai. One could even argue that the minerals in the dirt provide the added benefit of a daily multi-mineral supplement. (I have been tempted to add a little dirt to my chai at home.)
After use, your chai cup dissolves back into the earth.
In addition to being environmentally sustainable, the clay cup is a sanitary alternative to drinking chai from a glass. Generally, chai glasses in India get only a hand rinsing in a bucket of cold water instead of being sterilized with soap and hot water. When drinking a glass of chai, you are touching lips with the many chai lovers who have sipped chai before you. This, of course, presents the risk of being exposed to a myriad of communicable diseases. The water itself is also cause for concern. Unlike the chlorinated water in American cities, the water here is alive, and may be host to an array of bacteria, viruses, amoebas and parasites. Although chai is boiled thoroughly and poses no threat, the glasses are often reused while still dripping wet. Even a few drops of this water in your chai can cause upset stomach, diarrhea or worse. It is best to avoid this unpleasant experience by patronizing chai stalls that use the one-use clay cups.
The size and shape of the cups vary throughout different regions of India. The average clay cup holds about three or four ounces, but can vary from the size of a shot glass in Gujarat to the uncommon, American-sized, 10-ounce chai we found across from the Hare Krishna temple in Vrindavan. On several occasions we enjoyed a small, 2-ounce cup of chai for only 1 rupee (about 2 1/2 cents). The meager portion conditioned us to sip slowly and savor our chai, as well as giving us the opportunity to socialize at more chai shops throughout the day.
In Benares clay cups are called puruas, in West Bengal, bhaar, and across much of India they are referred to as kullarhs. At train stations, the cups are jokingly nicknamed pi ke put, pi ke meaning “to drink” and put referring to the sound it makes when it hits the tracks: “drink and chuck.”
With the introduction of plastic cups came the plastic pile-up from patrons accustomed to tossing their cups out the window. The Minister of the Indian Railway System has banned train chai wallahs from using plastic, but unfortunately this new rule is not always enforced.
Although technology in India has advanced at a rapid pace, ancient, yet timeless, traditions like the clay cup are preserved because of their modern applications. Considering the resources saved and the potential litter that would otherwise be created by millions upon millions of chai drinkers, biodegradable clay cups are a sustainable solutuion to our diposable dilema.