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Born outside of Boston, Ayan & Ani Sanyal are the founders of Kolkata Chai Co.: a chai company with a cafe in NYC and an online marketplace. As first-generation Americans, the brothers grew up straddling two cultures, and as the sons of two beautiful Bengali people who came to the U.S. in 1987, their concept of home was forever-shifting.
Kolkata Chai Co. began in hopes of answering the question: how do we extend the authenticity, respect and tradition behind a cup of masala chai to NYC? Below, Ani & Ayan share their story.
Tell me about your upbringing. What was it like constructing a multi-layered identity?
Ayan: “Where we grew up was pretty diverse, but what shaped us most was our mom's home sickness. She never wanted to leave India, so she always had a goal of returning. We were very lucky to be able to go back frequently as kids and build strong bonds with our family in Calcutta. It was a second home to us.
We were raised with a very stark contrast between our lives in America, where you take things like heat, hot water and air conditioning for granted, and a place in which those ‘simple necessities’ aren’t as readily available. You see people in different predicaments, like really severe cases of poverty that you don't really see in the U.S. Knowing what life is like in other parts of the world offered us a lot of depth and nuance to life. Culturally speaking, those experiences offered us all the incredible things India, and Calcutta specifically, have to offer, in terms of street food, chai, etc.”
How does family play into the ideology behind the cafe?
Ayan: “My mom's father has one of the few free-standing houses in South Calcutta; we had this nice, little backyard. Being able to experience that space, look at your lineage, and understand all the stories of your family – how my great grandfather bought the property and split it up through the generations – provided another lens through which to see how important family is. We’ve always been aware of the fact that there are people that deeply care about us, living very far away, that we constantly have to maintain a connection with.
My grandfather passed away this year, and we haven’t been able to go back and see our family. This cafe is a way to honor our parents’ sacrifices and pay homage to our heritage. Even naming this place Kolkata Chai Co. means everything to both us and them.”
Ani: “As a new immigrant family in the U.S, all we had was the four of us. It was us against the elements at all times and it could feel very lonely. Going back to India showed us that we actually had a support system in our extended family. That unconditional love we experienced from our grandparents, aunties and cousins gave us a deep sense of belonging.”
Can you explain the significance of chai culture in your upbringing?
Ayan: “Chai occupied two separate spaces, and that's why it's so powerful. At home, we would gather around at five or six o'clock, in the typical colonialist fashion that was embedded into Indian culture in the 50s and 60s. We have a Bengali tradition called ‘adda,’ which is a long, never-ending discourse – we sit around and drink tea and talk shit for hours.
The other side of our exposure to chai was actually going out and getting street food in Calcutta, which always felt like a treat. We’d go to a place called Maharanis for masala chai, jalebi, samosas/singharas. There’s a true allure to street food in India, and it's something that's really passed through generations. I’ve always been so in awe of the process of making the best chai and having such committed customers.”
Can you speak to the appropriation of chai in the Western world?
Ayan: “When we started doing our research, we looked at all these companies and realized that none of them had South Asian founders. It's been a weird game of telephone between the West and South Asia, as chai is characterized as a spicy and spiritual phenomenon, but we’ve never thought about it that way. That was a realization we had: everyone knows what chai is, but no one really knows what chai is. We're putting people onto the good stuff as minority entrepreneurs in a space that has no minority entrepreneurship, working with a drink that originates within our culture.”
Ani: “From a business perspective, watching people who are not from our culture profit off of our lifestyle was very frustrating. That served as a lot of early motivation for us to reclaim the narrative.”
What inspired you to open the cafe?
Ayan: “Ani & I started our own digital marketing agency in 2016, so we were working together providing strategy, marketing assets and brand positioning to other companies. We saw all these new and exciting brands pop up, but realized there was nothing that spoke to us on a cultural and experiential level. At the same time, I was experimenting with the idea of creating a space for access to fresh and authentic chai. I would wake up every morning, go to the farmers market and experiment with different ways of making chai.
Once we started, we realized that there was a lot of demand – a lot of other multicultural kids wanted an experience and a brand that spoke to them. We took all the learnings that we had gained in the agency and applied them to ourselves to build an identity and storytelling platform. It was definitely a leap of faith – we didn't have enough experience and we definitely didn't have enough funds in the bank, but we managed to open our doors in September of 2019.”
Ani: “We knew that we were the best equipped to tell this story and I’m happy we took the leap. No one has been able to blend food, culture and authenticity the way we have, with all due respect.”
What does your menu consist of and how have you curated it?
Ayan: “We provide snacks and chai ($17.99). When we realized that people really wanted classic Indian street food, we got samosas and started making something called an egg roll, which is like a snack wrap, but it's a paratha. We made some modifications, adapted it to more of an American palate, but it still has the Indian spices. It’s kind of this ‘best of both worlds’ taste that we’re trying to curate. It’s very New York, but also very Calcutta at the same time. It’s been such a hit.
We also make a really nice filter coffee, which is a strong Indian coffee with a little bit of chicory. Our samosa chaat is made of two smashed samosas, with some chickpeas that are marinated in spices and tamarind sauce, and we add a lot of fresh onion, tomato, cilantro – our holy holy trinity of Indian snack foods. Chaat literally means to lick, so it’s finger-licking good in the truest sense of the word.”
How does the concept of home relate to Kolkata Chai Co?
Ayan: “We try to emphasize this idea that you're coming into my home and this is what I'm giving you, but feel free to bring your own stories and experiences because that's how we can celebrate our differences. Globally, we’re coming to a point where there’s more nuanced understanding of differing cultures. The pluralism that that brings, is really good for the world. Food and tea are such beautiful, innocent and delicious ways to engage further with those conversations.
Questioning what home even is, especially for us multicultural individuals, is what KCC signifies. As South Asians, we only recently moved away from having Harold and Kumar as our only representation, to having more diversified role models and more nuanced perspectives. It’s a really positive social aspect to see people that look like you, doing what they’re doing, and thriving. We want our cafe to be a hub for all sorts of people to find a home, especially when they’re homesick.”
Ani: “We’ve created a space for people to be the most authentic version of themselves and that’s extremely powerful.”
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