Mumbai is often dubbed India’s “Maximum City” and it’s easy to see why: Within the city’s sprawling six-hundred-square-kilometre radius, you’ll find everything from millionnaire mansions and opulent Art Deco and colonial architecture to a human-powered laundromat, an overcrowded train network, and some of Asia’s biggest slums. Life here is a lot of things to a lot of people (20 million, per the last tally). But for most, it starts with a cup of chai.
If there’s one thing to know about chai (tea) in Mumbai, it’s that there is quality chai for every price point. While hordes of tourists flock to the iconic Taj Mahal Palace hotel for a spot of high tea, the traditional chai at a tea house or bakery is where one can truly experience the city.
In much of India, local wisdom dictates that the best chai is always had at little corner shacks, where men hunch over a gargantuan vat of tea, swirling it around in milk and ladling it from above their heads into glass or clay cups. It’s like watching mixologists do their pub flair, but you’re twice as worried because the stuff being poured is scalding hot!
There is an endless number of places where this sort of chai is a must. Most of them are either shacks attached to an office building, waiting for their rush of daily customers or are housed in ancient (but beautiful) colonial structures, with high beamed ceilings and ceiling fans that move too slowly to do away with Mumbai heat.
They are mostly very unglamorous, but definitely where you can get the good stuff—complete with fresh baked goods, or a brun maska (a sweet milk bun, with a sinful amount of butter). For the adventurous, there is ‘cutting chai’—which quite literally translates to a cup of chai cut in half. These are concentrated, little glasses—the size of doppio, where the tea that has been steeped in milk until there is no more steeping left to do.
Here is a list of the best places to head to to get your fix of chai in Mumbai.
Best known for its baked goods, including mawa cake (a must-try!), this hundred-and-some-year-old eatery in South Bombay’s Fort area is a place to enjoy your Irani chai while you people-watch, sitting calmly at a table covered with a checkered tablecloth, and enjoy old-school Parsi fare, eggs, beans, and classic Bombay-style patties.
Also located in Fort, albeit a little younger, this café opened its doors in the 1950s. The aroma of freshly baked milk bread perfumes the air here. The walls are full of posters from the ‘old days’—some, curiously enough, in German. Sit back, debate their origins, and sip milky tea along with buttery biscuits for dunking or a raisiny brun muska.
By this point, you’ve hopefully noticed that Mumbai has a lot of bakeries, most of which are Irani (note: though the terms “Parsi” and “Irani” are used synonymously, especially when it comes to food, they’re not). Sassanian, another one-hundred-and-some-year-old bakery, is located in the Marine Lines neighbourhood. Amongst the must-try dishes of their extensive menu are bread pudding, brun maska (obviously), and, of course, Irani chai.
Located in the northern Mumbai suburb of Juhu, just a short walk away from the beach, the Prithvi Café is housed within the Prithvi Theatre. The food here never disappoints and is rather well-priced considering it’s in one of Mumbai’s two prominent theatres. You’ll find long queues to get a table, especially on weekends, but the turnover is high and the chai and food are well worth the wait.
This is perhaps one of the places on this list that is best left for an evening tea, which can easily flit into early drinks and dinner. The tea here is always consistent, as is the brun muska and the mawa custard (save space for this!)—a creamy dessert topped with dried fruit. Come prepared to eavesdrop (for entertainment’s sake, of course), since office workers and lawyers often frequent this establishment.
When Britannia and Co.’s owner passed away earlier this year, the city mourned the loss of an eccentric personality who, should you have asked him a question, would’ve come, sat himself down on your table, and enthralled you with tales of days of yore. A sign marketing the joint (a humble one—expect no frills) as “Exotic Parsi and Iranian Cuisine” still hangs outside its walls. Try the chai, the berry pulao, and, if you have room, the caramel custard.
Perhaps the most unsuspecting chai spot on this list, right outside Mumbai’s crowded Churchgate Station, is a chai vendor who means serious business. Since hundreds (if not thousands) of customers sweep by daily, the chai here is served fresh, hot, and fast.
From tea manufacturers Brooke Bond, the Taj Mahal Tea House is a cosy café where tea is taken with impressive seriousness. After selecting a tea from their extensive menu, expect all the thrills and frills of a high-street tea house: tea-infused dishes, blue pottery, and, of course, overbearing wait staff who remind you not to pour your tea until it has been brewed to perfection.
It is perhaps impossible to leave high tea at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel off a list of places to enjoy chai in Mumbai. The tea itself is good, yes, but beyond that, the Taj Mahal Palace is a hotel with unparalleled charm. The high tea is served in the Sea Lounge, a space rich with colonial aesthetic in what is arguably Mumbai’s most famous structure.