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In My Cups: Indian Clay

I believe I’ve mentioned here once or twice that since 1998 I’ve been running an online chat group that over the years has attracted members from around the globe, from consumers to tea professionals. Some years ago the group was discussing disposable cups and the effects they have on the tea served in them. This was long before the current crop of portable tea infusers hit the market.

The ultimate in recycling – tho’ kinda grit-tea. (Photo source: article author)
The ultimate in recycling – tho’ kinda grit-tea. (Photo source: article author)

While we were chatting about the pros and cons of paper (which got mixed reviews) versus Styrofoam™ (a unanimous “yuck”) versus the hassle of carrying around a Thermos® bottle, one of our members – a tea estate owner and exporter, I believe – mentioned the disposable clay cups used in India. When I remarked that I had seen these in some movie or other (maybe Flame over India?) but had never seen them in person, he very kindly offered to send me one.

Disposable clay cups are quite common in India. Tea vendors – or chai wallahs – on the street, in kiosks, or on trains use them for serving a thick, sweet, and spicy milk tea, a form of what we know as chai, to travelers, commuters, and shoppers.

The cups are hand-fashioned of a local clay, then dried and lightly baked in a low-fire kiln. This produces a rather crude unglazed cup. Some street vendors have a potter’s wheel and kiln of their own to produce the cups, but most vendors, especially on trains, buy their cups from potters – thus providing an income for both tea seller and cup maker.

An experienced potter can turn out a cup in about ten seconds. The size and style of the cups varies according to region, from tall and tapered – the most common type used on trains – to small and bulbous, and many shapes in between.

Once the customer is finished with their tea, they simply throw the cup on the ground, whether on the street or out the train window. The resulting shards, left to the elements of heat and rain, disintegrate and return to the earth fairly quickly. It’s really the ultimate in recycling!

When I received my disposable cup I noticed that there were clay “crumbs” in the bottom, so I dumped them into the garden and rinsed out the cup. But not well enough: I could still taste the clay in my tea. Then I learned that a little bit of grit in the chai was to be expected and just adds to the experience. While I’m not quite sold on that idea I don’t think it did me any harm – although it didn’t do the tea much good.

My benefactor sent me not only the chai cup but also a small bowl and plate of the same material. These disposable clay food dishes are for the most part being replaced with plastic serving ware. But it looks like the clay cups will still be around for a while, so if you travel to India you’re sure to come across them at some point, and may want to give them – and the local chai – a try.

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2 responses to “In My Cups: Indian Clay”

  1. 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.

  2. What a good idea … I do have chai in my local India restaurant but not in the disposable cup! As I will not be going to India in the near future I will not experience the clay pot which is a shame. Thank you for sharing _/\_ x

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