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Reclaiming Chai Culture in the Western World: In Conversation with Kolkata Chai Co. Founders, Ani & Ayan Sanyal

By: Naomi Joshi

Kolkata Chai Co. founders, Ani & Ayan Sanyal, are first-generation Bengali-Americans, paving the way for young creatives of the diaspora to embrace all sides of their cultures. Raised outside of Boston and currently based in New York City, Ani and Ayan’s parents came to America from Kolkata in 1987, in hopes of achieving the American Dream. As aspiring artists with business backgrounds, the Sanyal brothers wanted to provide a home for the diasporic communities of NYC: a space where afrobeat music is played, and desi traditions are respected. Unable to find a cup of chai that tasted anything like the Kolkata street chai they drank each summer growing up, Ani & Ayan decided to open up their own version of the Taj Mahal - a cafe inspired by the merging of their bi-cultural identity. Serving their own signature flavors, you’ll find the classic Masala Chai and Nimbu Chai, as well as Cardamom Coffee, Oat Milk Masala Chai and Bhel Puri. Rather than dwelling on the ways in which chai has been appropriated within the Western sphere, these two brothers decided to control their own narrative and redefine what it means to be American.

 What was the process of opening Kolkata Chai Co.?

AYAN

We started really small, so just friends and family. Then, there was a small farmers market, where we started selling chai, and we got to see if the products actually fit the market. That was a really important thing for us to test. We come from business backgrounds - we were running a marketing agency before this and so we've basically helped so many people build and market their own products, and eventually we thought, why don't we do this for ourselves. Once we realized that we had something that people really wanted, something people hadn't really seen before, it was like, we gotta move fast.

ANI

Yeah, we tried to figure out if we can open a chai spot in a market or a corporate catering format, but we understood that to create a space for our story, we had to take that leap, and deal with New York City real estate. So, the opening of the cafe had a lot to do with how we want to create a space that's reflective of our values.

 What does this cafe offer? What’s on your menu?

AYAN 

We hold ourselves to really high product standards in terms of what the ingredients are that we use. We really focus on making everything fresh and ensuring that everything is inspired by the streets of Kolkata. The Masala Chai is our own interpretation, our own recipe, of different versions of chai that you can find - it's got a very ginger and cardamom forward flavor, which not many chais have here [in NYC]. And then my favorite, the Nimbu Chai, is a small, sort of espresso black tea with some spices and fresh lime. In Kolkata, I would go to the park in the morning, next to all the people going on their morning walks and have my chai. I really listened when I went back to India, really listened to what people were doing there, where the street food comes from. I was looking at the street food vendors as Michelin star restaurants in their own way because they've found a way to create these really unique flavors. The Bhel Puri also comes from a very Bengali recipe. We try to keep it as authentic and fresh as possible. When we started with the cafe idea, we had a pretty strong vision of what we wanted to combine: we have pastries from a very good French bakery out here in the city, but that's also combined with jam toast, and things like that. We wanted to kind of - I don't like using the word fusion, but we wanted to create the best of different cafe experiences and align it with our own story.

ANI

This isn't high brow chai. We purposely stayed away from falling into that trap in New York City. Honoring the ingredients and the culture of street food was pretty key to our development.

What about the tea? Is it imported from India?

AYAN

We have a good balance of getting whatever we can local and getting whatever can't be localized, imported. So, our milk is local Hudson Valley milk that we use for all our chais. To be able to support the milk farmers and the whole milk business, that's obviously a really nice thing. But our tea is from India, it's from Assam. The Ayurvedic ingredients aren't actually from India, but they’re all proprietary blends that I found from India. We don't use any tea bags, everything's loose. I basically visited the tea gardens and then found suppliers and wholesalers that supply here. For us, it’s very much about finding what people are using, rather than searching for a team in particular that has chai. We make all our spices in house, we grind everything separately. It's laborious, but there's only one way to do it, if you want to do it right.

 

What kind of communities have you been able to build through the opening of the cafe?

ANI

I think what we knew but we didn't necessarily realize before opening, was that everybody from the diaspora that exists in New York City doesn't really have a home. There isn't really a place where we go to, that feels like home. Of course, there's a little shisha lounge you may go to, but those things don't quite encapsulate the experience. So, what we realized was that we really wanted to create this cafe for people from across the diaspora. India is the country that we come from, but it's not the end all. It's not the start and end of that. I think we've tapped into the creative community, which was really important. As creators ourselves, we wanted to have a place to champion artists, to provide those spaces and opportunities that we wish we had. The creative community and the diasporic community - we want to do more for identity, how that breaks down across the diasporas. We want to really have a forum type of session where we can talk about Indo-Caribbean identity, about the Black and Brown conflict in the United States. We want to use this space to really break down and have as many conversations as we can.

Does this cafe have a target audience? Have you opened it partially for the desi community to feel like an important part of our culture is finally being depicted authentically?

AYAN 

It's kind of crazy when you think about how chai is so downplayed at South Asian restaurants. It’s such a side note, sort of an afterthought. But it has such a huge meaning to every South Asian and beyond, and so, to really champion it and highlight it, was something that a lot of people were waiting for. Those people are definitely our target audience.

ANI 

Our target audience was and is the young, creative community in New York City, the diasporic communities. We want to continue to make sure we're connecting with everyone - young, old, across all verticals. We want to have our brand message broad enough, to connect to all these people, but while staying true to where we come from. Ayan and I, we've never had aspirations of driving a Lamborghini or living in Dubai. We don't care about that. For us, it's about creating something that we're going to be proud of. When you approach everything in life like that, you just create authentic vibes. That's always going to be a big part of what we're doing.

 

What kind of feedback have you gotten from the South Asian diaspora?

ANI

Everyone's on board so far, which is awesome. We've had, we've had like, 99%, good feedback, some Yelp reviews, that we can't control, but you know. Everyone's been so supportive, not only with their words and their share, but also with their dollars. That's real support. So we feel really, really blessed to have that. But I think also, to be fair, we honored that community and that narrative through everything we did. We reinvest back into that community, so I think we have a great relationship with it. We really just want to continue to strengthen that relationship.

AYAN

Yeah, and now people have been bringing their stories here. Someone will always tell me how their mom makes chai, and that's always really nice because that's what we created this for - for everyone to kind of come together.

How does it feel to constantly be confronted with the appropriation of chai in the Western world?

AYAN

At first, it was disbelief. Really? None of these are South Asian owned brands? And people are making so much money off of it? And then - Ani and I are very social justice aware, and we rarely just sit back. So, our second thought was, let's do something about it, let’s take that proactive step, let’s take this back. We can control the narrative here. That was one of our goals.

ANI

As we dug into the history of it, we realized that chai wasn't introduced to this country by South Asian people, it was introduced by hippies and major brands like Starbucks. So, it was kind of like playing telephone: someone saw someone else put spices in tea but didn't really know what it was. And there you have the chai latte. So, when we realized that we were like, hold on, massive misunderstanding here. But we can have fun with that, because nobody else is gonna do it. We can poke fun at everybody, knowing at the end of the day, that they can't do it the way we do it.

Would you say this cafe represents the merging of both your cultures? Or maybe what it means to be American?

ANI 

Absolutely. I think this cafe represents what it means to create something, to know your past and know your traditions and yet, not compromise any part of yourself. It represents what it means to look forward. We play afrobeat, we play dancehall, we play soca music. We’re not only South Asian people, we're cosmopolitan because we live in New York City. This is really a blend of the cultures we grew up with.

Can you tell me a bit about the blog you started and also how it connects to the aim of the cafe?

AYAN

We've always had really strong media backgrounds and telling our story has always been important. So, the blog is a way to control our own press and talk about things that we're going through, the problems that we're seeing, what we're testing, and just giving people a closer look at what is happening behind the scenes.

ANI

Our biggest media so far has been a blog post that we wrote about the dangers of creating a New York City based Indian restaurant, so to speak, and how we want to avoid a lot of those classic tropes. Coming into this, there's a lot of questions about whether we will get press or what kind of reception we will get. And, you know, I don't think Ayan and I ever really sweated about that. We have the ability to control our own narrative by being savvy with how we use media and marketing, and therefore our storytelling. I think the blog is just a way to be transparent about stuff, but also to make sure that nobody else can tell our stories. We're definitely planning on being more active on the blog.

Do your parents play a role in the making of this cafe?

AYAN

Well, my mom's approval of our chai is the deciding factor. If she approves, then it's good.

ANI

Yeah, they're our biggest cheerleaders. A big reason why we did this was for our parents. They moved to America 31 years ago, from Kolkata, with nothing, no money, and built a life for us. I mean, this is our version of the Taj Mahal, if I can go that far. So they're really excited. I think we have definitely seen the joy that this brings them and it means a lot to us. Our parents are getting older just like everyone else's and for them to have something that they're really passionate about, I think it's probably one of my biggest accomplishments in life. I'll be candid, you know, we've done a lot, but I think that this is the biggest thing.

 

How has it been mixing family and work?

AYAN

Ani and I've been working together for a while now so we've kind of figured out how to work with each other, but it was definitely a challenge at first. At the start, it took a lot of patience and growth on both sides to separate a little-brother-big-brother relationship and actually be able to be business partners.

ANI

Yeah, we got all of our fighting out early on, so we're pretty smooth on this side, which is great. If there was any of that, I don't think this place would really be able to flourish.

AYAN

We’ve learned to trust each other. And we need to keep trusting each other.

ANI

We keep our mom out of the kitchen, that's number one. I don't think we could have done it any other way. I have a couple of different businesses but this one is definitely special.

How does the concept of home relate to the ideas behind Kolkata Chai Co.?

ANI 

Home, for us growing up, was a very distorted concept, because we had a home here, we went back home, quote unquote, to where our family's from, and you realize you have a home there as well. You're never really comfortable at either place, you never feel fully settled at both. We have young cousins in India now who are growing up and, in our hearts and minds, we're always with them. We're wondering, what are you doing? What are you eating for breakfast? It's almost like you're always missing a part of you. So when we created the cafe, we thought, what does this space look like when you put two homes together? You can't really go to any place in New York City or in this country that I know of, and get this kind of experience - where it feels authentic in all ways possible, from the food and the music, to the people and the story. As marketers, we're really big on creating the products that you wish existed. And this is probably our best distillation of that.

 

What does chai mean to you? Can you explain the significance of chai culture in your upbringing?

AYAN 

Chai means home, it means good conversation, means coming together over something. It means community. I always tell people that coffee is the opposite - people love coffee, but they grab it and go, go to work or quickly down an espresso at the counter. But with chai, you have to sit and talk about something.

ANI 

I think chai means connectivity, connecting a lot of different things, whether it's family, whether it's friends, whether it's ideas, conversation, it's about finding that connection, that connectivity.

What was it like growing up in an immigrant home in the United States? Did you grow up with a desi community?

ANI

We didn't grow up with a particular desi community, so we were a little bit isolated. I think early on, as kids trying to find your footing in America, you're not always proud of your culture, or quick to accept who you are. You don't quite understand the power of your culture. So, we went through that kind of identity discovery, just like a lot of diaspora kids did. I think, for us, we were always very proud of where we came from. Once we were actually able to go to India and see Kolkata, the people, the food, the customs and the traditions, that's when we developed a deep appreciation and love for it. It never left us. It never left us and we really tried to honor that.

What was it like to construct a multi-layered identity growing up? Did you feel torn between two places / two cultures all the time?

AYAN

Yeah, it definitely came and went in phases. Both of us were aspiring artists, so that was a big part of our adolescence. Growing up, the music that you listened to defined you a lot. I was super into classic rock while Ani was really into hip hop. And coming to terms with both of those was touch and go sometimes, but I think we're at the point where we can kind of combine both in a really fulfilling and wholesome way.

ANI

Yeah, I think the challenge was always, how do you honor your family, your parents, your customs and your ancestors, while also assimilating and living in a modern world? We never wanted to be out of touch on either side, and so this cafe is our interpretation of being in touch on both sides.

Can you tell me a bit about what it means for you to be artists?

ANI

Creatively, I think Ayan and I both have a story to tell in our own way, and a lot of that has always been tied to identity. I chose hip hop music, produced music, wrote music, rapped, and managed to tour the world for about 10 years. And that was just a way to express my story, on a non-traditional platform. Hip hop music, being a Black art form, there's a lot of struggle, a lot of pain and a lot of empowerment that comes out of that. And as a Brown kid in America, those strands are more familiar to you than what's going on in the mainstream culture.

AYAN

Yeah, I think just being creative from the get go is always how we look at the world, we always look at the world through an artistic lens. It's also helped us provide a space and a platform for creatives - a lot of creative Brown people walk through these doors, and understanding that you can be South Asian and you can be an artist, that wasn't really told to us growing up. So, proving that model and providing a space for other people to connect and meet each other is one of our guiding principles.

 

What is your take on family and roots, specifically in relation to being diasporic subjects?

AYAN

Our heritage and our family is everything. When we would go back to India every year as kids, we would always see how important family is, and we would learn more about where we come from, who our ancestors really are. It's always given us a sense of purpose to know who we are. And we're actually lucky to have gone back, and been in touch with that side, because a lot of people don't have that privilege. But our mom was always homesick, so she would save up all the time and just go to India. We always had that connection to the spirit of Kolkata.

ANI

Family and roots are core to our narrative and I think that ultimately when you honor that first, you can never stray too far from the purity of what you're doing. There's no other chai place in New York, that can compete with us in any way. When people talk about competition, I never feel like we have any competition, because the way we're approaching this is not like anybody else. This is really for, not only our family, but for our culture, our city and really for an entire group of people, whether you’re diasporic from Ghana or India or the Middle East, wherever it is. This is our mission. This is our way of showing that it's really possible. And we encourage other people to do the same.

In what ways do stay connected to your South Asian / Bengali heritage other than through Kolkata Chai Co.?

ANI

Personally, I do a lot of work in that community, whether it's mentoring young people in New York city or beyond. I work with Bangladeshi-American artists. We like to do a lot of music stuff in India - making sure that that story is told authentically on that side of the world is something that I'm involved with as well. I think we also stay connected through our travels. Whenever we go back to India, one of our low-key goals is to stimulate the economy, whichever way we can. If that means just, giving your favorite mishtiwala consistent business for 30 days, so be it. I think philanthropy is something that we both want to make concerted effort towards. I'm on the board of an organization called Crossover Basketball, which teaches literacy and women empowerment in India through basketball. So, it's not Bengali focused, but it is for young people in India, and continuing to acknowledge the privilege that we do have and using it in a smart, powerful way, I think is core.

Do you consider yourself to be American? What does it mean to be American to you?

AYAN 

America is great. Going through the whole business process and realizing how much freedom you have, quote unquote, to do whatever you want in this country… We always talk about it, you go to Italy and you're like, I want to move to Italy. Then you realize in Italy, you can't really do what you're doing here. So, when it comes to America, the opportunity to sort of make bread is limitless. To have some responsibility around that and take that opportunity to progress, in regards to certain social issues, your culture, etc, but also to make a nice feeling dime while you're at it, is really what I think the American Dream is.

ANI

Yes, we're American. We have to acknowledge the privilege that comes with having an American passport. It's just a crazy concept. America is not perfect. There's a lot of American kids, first generation kids, that don't have any connection to their culture, or their home. But we're not those people, and I think that's the point - we’re American, but part of our heart and mind is always back home. So, we're just gonna keep authentically telling that story for as long as we can. But yes, we're American, for better, for worse. We have to acknowledge the privilege that comes with being born in this country.

 


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