Lifelong chai lover Pravy Nijjar may have pursued degrees in public health and a position with the Indiana Department of Health, but her memories of growing up in bustling Jalandhar, India, with her Punjabi grandparents kept telling her she needed to do something more. After grueling 100-hour weeks in trauma and injury prevention during the pandemic followed by a year-long stint at a desk job with Bastian Solutions, a Toyota Advanced Logistics company, Nijjar knew she had to be back among people, living life on her terms. The result was A Cup of Chai, the cozy all-day teahouse she opened on a quiet corner in Fountain Square in July. Now, she gets to serve friends and new customers alike the tasty street-food snacks she learned to love later in life, as well as her custom blend of especially milky, aromatic chai. Here, she shares her journey to owning a business and her tips and secrets for brewing the perfect cup.
Your love of Indian culture and food goes back to your childhood?
Oh, yes. I was born in Jalandhar, a city of about a million people in the state of Punjab in northern India. My family moved to the States just after that, but they faced some challenges as immigrants, so when my brother was about to be born, they sent me back to live with my grandparents for about four years. I eventually came back, but I’m so glad for the experience. Some of my cousins don’t like all of the overstimulation of an Indian city, but I love the culture. In my return trips, I’ve fallen in love with Indian street foods, and I dream of sipping pani puri or snacking on chaat aloo tikki chat or kulfi.
And cooking and tea were big parts of that from an early age?
Growing up, I was always the kid who wanted a fake kitchen to play with. And I was experimenting with chai from the time that I was about 10. The chai from Punjab is quite different from other parts of the country. It’s one of the largest dairy-producing regions in the country, so they love their milk and put a lot of it in their chai. Many people own their own cows and water buffaloes. Because of that, the chai is very strong with a lot more spices. But spices are just what the individual wants. There’s no set formula. I like ginger, cardamom, fennel, and cloves, but many people customize it to their own tastes. My aunt will put peppercorn into it, along with dried ginger root. My mother-in-law likes only green cardamom.
What are the biggest differences between the Indian food in the West and the food Indian people really eat?
No one eats like that every day. We’d be so big! The food in most Indian restaurants in the U.S. and England is from northern India, mostly because a lot of Northern Indians went to England and Canada after the British left. And the food can be great, but it’s mostly stuff we’d eat for weddings or celebrations. Indians don’t really eat naan except a couple of times a year. They make roti or chapatti from whole-grain flour, as well as simple veggie stir fries, chicken curry, sabji, or yellow dal. It’s a lot lighter and healthier than the Indian food Americans know.
How did you decide what you were going to offer at A Cup of Chai?
We just wanted something savory and something sweet. We didn’t want to overwhelm people. I knew I wanted kati rolls, which are parathas or butter flatbreads rolled around various fillings (chicken, potato, paneer). A lot of people come in and say they haven’t had something like that since they were in India years ago. Samosas were a no-brainer, too, and they’re great with chai. We’re planning to switch up the filling of the rolls with the seasons. But we kept things simple because we didn’t have much time between opening and getting the crowds coming in. We’re figuring it out as we go and seeing what customers like.
You’ve had some experience as a private chef. Why not just open a full-service restaurant?
For the last three years or so I’ve been doing some private dinners through Cozymeal. And that’s been really fun. They’re usually dishes that I just love—butter chicken, gheera rice, kheer, lentil soup. But a chef has to be at the restaurant all of the time, and I just don’t have that kind of commitment. And I wouldn’t be able to expand my business outside of myself really if this were a restaurant. We also didn’t have the funds for a restaurant. Everything for this cafe is from our savings.
And you worked to give it your personal touch?
This was just an abandoned building, and we did a lot of the work on it ourselves. I had fun decorating it with work from local artists and a painting of a map of India depicting a lot of the different foods from different states. I feel like I want this to be more than just a tea shop or a place to get a snack. I want this to be a community center. It’s been so interesting to see that, unlike at other places, some people want tea and coffee later in the day. We have different regulars who like to come in at different times. It’s been fun meeting and seeing a little following develop. We’ve had a lot of requests for weddings and other events, as well. But I love just hanging out with my friends, and they basically come here every day.
Can you even drink the chai from a certain well-known coffee chain?
Almost. It’s like the most cinnamon-sugar intense thing I’ve tasted in my whole life. It’s really not Indian, anyway. It’s fusion. And that’s fine if that’s your thing.