“I always tell people there are two branches of the etymology, tea or te from the Chinese, and cha or chai from the Indian,” Sanyal explains. In fact, it was the British colonizers who introduced black tea drinking to the people of India. Before that, Indians drank a hot spice mixture called kahwa. So tea in Indian became a mixture of both black tea (often Assam) and this spice mixture.
Sanyal, whose family hails from Kolkata (hence the cafe’s name), traveled throughout India tasting as many versions of chai as he could, and found that it can vary widely. But the most common version features cardamom and fresh ginger -- rather than the pumpkin spice latte flavor profile in which cinnamon and nutmeg dominate. (My in-laws in Mumbai all start their tea by steeping fresh ginger and cardamom pods.)
You’ll see other versions of chai on Kolkata’s menu, like Sanyal’s mother’s favorite, Nimbu. This is made with a bit of lemon or lime instead of milk (nimbu means lemon in Hindi). I tried their ambrosial kesar chai. Kesar translates to saffron, so this tea is topped with saffron threads, which adds an almost savory dimension to the taste.
And you’ll see other cultural influences on the menu, like Mexican-style coffee, cafe de olla, which is made with cinnamon, star anise, and orange peel. “I’m always trying to do that cultural exchange in a subtle way, to teach through food,” Sanyal says. “It’s the best way to learn because it’s delicious.”
Growing up with immigrant parents, the Sanyal brothers felt conflicted between their Indian culture and American culture. But now, Aryan feels like there’s more room now to embrace both cultures at once. “They’re not opposing anymore,” he says. “You don’t have to choose. The American dream is having both.”