Chai from a clay cup — that raw, astringent taste of earth, mixed with gingery-sweet-milky 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 single-use clay cup and hearing it POP as you watch it hit the ground and break into bits.
Potters spin these small cups out of local river clay. The cups are sun-dried, half-baked in an open fire and delivered to nearby chai stalls. Chai wallahs customarily tap the bottom of the unglazed cup to dislodge any traces of dirt before pouring the chai. Even so, we inevitably ingested a bit of melted clay with our chai. This enhanced the chai’s character and, we surmised, also provided a daily dose of multi-mineral supplement. (I have been tempted to throw a little dirt in my chai at home.) In time, the broken cups dissolve back into the earth.
In addition to being environmentally sustainable, clay cups are the hygienic alternative to drinking chai from a glass. Chai glasses in India typically get rinsed in a bucket of cold water rather than being sterilized with soap and hot water. Drinking chai from a glass can inadvertently expose one to myriad communicable diseases.
The water itself is also cause for concern. Most water used by street chai wallahs is not purified, and may be host to an array of bacteria, viruses, amoebas and parasites. Although the chai is boiled thoroughly and poses no risk, 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, sending you running and looking for a bathroom — often a difficult thing to locate on the streets of India. This unpleasant experience can be avoided by patronizing chai stalls that use disposable clay cups.
The cups come in diverse sizes and shapes throughout 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 overindulgent, super-sized, ten-ounce chai we found across from the Hare Krishna temple in Vrin- davan. On several occasions we enjoyed a small two-ounce cup of chai for only one rupee (about two and a half cents). The modest portions conditioned us to sip slowly and savor our chai, giving us the opportunity to socialize at more chai shops throughout the day.
In Banaras, 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 puht, pi ke meaning “to drink” and puht referring to the sound it makes when it hits the tracks — drink and chuck.
The minister of the Indian Railway System banned train chai wallahs from using plastic cups, because of the overwhelming amount of litter they have generated in recent years. Unfortunately, from our observation, this regulation was routinely ignored. Considering the resources saved and the potential refuse that would be created by hundreds of millions of daily chai drinkers, the ancient clay cup continues to be a timeless solution.