The story of the desi kettle
Image Credit: As business districts in Indian cities developed, the chaiwalla and his tea caddy with transparent glasses holding piping hot chai became a familiar sight. (Photo: Getty Images)

Looking at the gaiwans and tetsu pots and the fancy porcelain of the full English tea service got me thinking about our desi teaware. It seems humbler in comparison, a little utilitarian too, but surely it had a backstory as interesting as that of other tea accessories.

Take the aluminium kettle—it’s a sight for sore eyes. With its promise of hot, milky, sweet nourishment, the kettle is our contribution to teaware, accompanied by two very different cups, the kulhad and chai glasses, the latter in their carrier. No other culture, I will wager, has created teaware purely for the street, for portability and sociability.

I turned to my favourite raconteur of food stories, Kurush Dalal, for the story. The shape of the kettle, he says, goes back to the bronze age. There used to be bowls with channel spouts made from brass—intended not for tea, since it was not known at the time, but probably for liquids like ghee and oils. The internet reveals some gorgeously crafted brass vessels, some squat, some tall, with intricate carvings, all with a graceful angled spout.

When tea was marketed to Indians, at railway stations, in factories and on streets, this spouted brass vessel seems to have been adopted. Ads from the 1940s-50s indicate the form of the kettle hasn’t changed much. But this was about the time aluminium—known as “German”, says Dalal—arrived on the scene (the Crown brand was believed to be the best). It must have been handier than the heavier, traditional brass. And the aluminium kettle (or ketli) became the vessel for tea.

Dalal says chaiwallas refer to the carrier holding the tea glasses as a “tea caddy”—caddy in tea parlance is the container to store tea. Tea, coffee and other beverages developed in urban centres, he says. “In Bombay (Mumbai), restaurants had two sets of waiters, andarwallas, who collected orders inside, and baharwallas, who collected orders outside.” The baharwallas, who took orders from shopkeepers and ferried the chai, needed something handy to carry the many cups filled with hot chai. The “tea caddy” came into being, as did glasses. “Metal glasses were expensive and came with all kinds of taboos attached to them,” says Dalal. As business districts in Mumbai developed, the chaiwalla and his tea caddy with transparent glasses holding piping hot chai became a familiar sight.

Which brings us to the kulhad, that little clay cup which is still in use, giving street tea an identity entirely its own. Clay cups are inherently Indian, dating back to Harappan times. These too were designed for other liquids. Today, the cups come in an assortment of shapes and sizes and design complexities. At their simplest, they are terracotta cups, thought to enhance the flavour of chai. I have never been convinced about this claim but I think it adds some heft to the kulhad’s place amongst teaware.

I come away with a greater appreciation of what I think of as Indian teaware. And when you see it through the lens of history, it doesn’t seem so humble after all.

Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry.