When you roam around the streets of Dhaka, you are bound to come across one of the most beloved Bengali traditional street delicacies – the ‘tong er cha’. Actually, an innumerable number of such stalls will become visible to you if you undertake a trek through the entire country. The ‘cha’ or ‘chai’ (tea) served at these tongs are largely homogeneous but some vendors do take measures to differentiate their offerings by adding extra elements such as ‘aada’ (ginger), ‘tetul’ (tamarind) or flavor additives like chocolate and Ovaltine. However, neither the flavored teas nor the classic regular version of ‘cha’ is the main draw for the droves of people that frequent these places every single day.
The ‘cha’, at the end of the day, is an excuse for socializing and the ‘tong’ becomes the venue where these ‘adda’ (gossip) sessions take place. The roles or boundaries that often divide people based on their socio-economic classes or age groups fade away at these locations. You’ll get to interact with people from diverse backgrounds at such ‘tongs’ over tea. Furthermore, these ‘tongs’ have also become the go-to place for mini-hangouts among friends whenever they need an escape from their mundane daily classes at their respective schools, coaching centers or universities.
Luckily, almost all institutions have an area nearby with ‘tongs’ in abundance. For the students studying in the universities located in Bashundhara, such as the NSU, IUB and AIUB, this region is the ‘Ghaatpaar’ located close to the 300 Feet highway, adjacent to the residential area. Students often choose to avail their daily dose of tea there instead of consuming the ones served at their own university cafeteria. The ‘tong’ becomes an even more frequently utilized safe haven for colleagues to get away from their monotonous routine of a regular work-day. While a number of them often engage in smoking cigarettes or eating snacks available at these stalls, the ‘cha’ is an essential element needed to re-energize them for the rest of the day.
The fact of the matter remains that the tea itself, often made with condensed milk to add a sweeter aftertaste, is not, however, the component that compels generation after generation of middle-aged men and youths from different walks of life to frequent these destinations. It is the conversations with known faces and the comparatively stress-free environment that such a humble setting provides when equated to the ones present in their workspaces or classrooms. Not only do these ‘tongs’ help in sustaining friendships all throughout one’s life, but they also facilitate newer bonds between colleagues which is a necessity for a life in the Bangladeshi job market. Swapping personal stories or narratives about their own experience at the current or prior work stations allows the personality and history of an individual to shine which helps his/her friends and coworkers relate to them better which, in turn, makes the camaraderie stronger.
If you talk about the more well-known tea stalls or ‘tongs’ serving the vast population of Dhaka City on a daily basis, you’ll find your friends saying that “Mukta Mama’s Cha was one of the more popular ones among the many ‘tongs’ they often visited near TSC-DU.”
There is no shortage of prominent ‘tongs’ in Dhaka city and all over Bangladesh as well. Even some of the most developed zones of the capital city house large numbers of their own roadside tea stalls. This is most evidently seen around the Gulshan-1 circle where Hassan Bhai’s Tong and Nasir Mama’s Cha have become the duopoly of favorite ‘tongs’ as they move about Gulshan numerous times a day.
Outside of Dhaka, there are tea stalls aplenty. A number of tourists or travelers go all the way to Sylhet where the ‘tongs’ often serve the immensely popular ‘shaat ronger cha’ (seven layered tea). Moreover, another common tea destination is the Ashulia intersection where numerous journeymen make a pit stop to avail the tea (made with pure cow’s milk) served at the stalls there.
Heading back to the capital, you’d see the modernization of the concept of the roadside tea stalls as well – newer places such as Cha Walah in Dhanmondi and Tea Tree in Mirpur aim to bring the aesthetic of an old-school ‘tong’ and merge it with the sensibilities of a modern beverage dispensing outlet.
During the cold winters or the hot summers or even the mixture of both (when it comes to the bipolar weather of modern-day Bangladesh), the one thing that stays constant is the consumption of tea from roadside stalls. The ‘tong er cha’ will probably remain an ineradicable factor in the Bangladeshi way of life until the end of time which may be sooner than we think if the coronavirus has its way. Just kidding. It is a cultural delicacy ingrained into the fabric of what literally makes Bengalis who they are. And, by “literally” it is actually meant literally you may have seen – the retrofitting of a classic Tyrion Lannister quote - 'I drink tong er cha and I know things' from ‘Game of Thrones’ to describe a Bangladeshi consumer of ‘tong er cha’.