What in tarnation is a Chai Tea Latte?

Few things offend my palate as much as the sickly, saccharine taste of the ‘chai tea lattes’ that have come to dominate the American coffeehouse scene. When the febrile liquid trickles down my throat, I control my gag reflex as my muscles tense up in revolt against the industrial aftertaste of these concoctions. “Chai tea latte”, my mind translates in puzzlement, “milk tea tea milk?”. The drink’s real name is reduced to a feeble cultural signifier and propped up with hackneyed terms to clarify its nature to an alien audience. I have never been a picky eater, and my critiques of “Indian” food outside the subcontinent are muted relative to those of my fellow Indians. While my friends and family forego Indian food when abroad, I have silently suffered through Yale Dining’s pita bread-as-naan act for three years. Tomato puree butter chicken, frozen cottage cheese mattar paneer, blander-than-milk chana masala — all eaten without a squeak in complaint. I cannot, however, keep my composure in the face of the co-option and corruption of the one drink that has given me hope after long nights of work and depressive bouts in New England winter.

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Photo by Hussain Ibrahim on Unsplash

Chai is emblematic of Indian culture. Most Indian families consume some form of tea, and only South Indian filter coffee provides any competition in the hot beverage category. Until the writing of this essay, I believed that chai was indeed an “Indian” beverage. We often fail to investigate the familiar and mind had constructed some vague history of chai, involving medieval tea gardens and Mughal emperors. Why of course, something that I so valued could not be…foreign?

I was soon to find that chai, its name derived from the Mandarin word cha for tea, was given to us by the British. Tea grew wild in Assam but only our colonizers started cultivating it in the 1830s to reduce their dependence on the Chinese monopoly. The drink was popularized through another colonial artefact: the railways. Aided by the British-run Indian Tea Association, chaiwalas proliferated across railway stations and industrialists began giving ‘tea-breaks’ to workers. And so, tea found its way from the workplace into households. Yet, many were skeptical. Gandhi noted, “the drinking of tea and coffee by the so-called educated Indians, chiefly due to British rule, may be passed over with the briefest notice.” How wrong he was — post-independence, as ownership of tea estates was transferred to an indigenous elite, the government began campaigns claiming tea as our very own, swadeshi drink. Perhaps by this point tea had indeed become Indian — if the British mixed milk into Chinese green tea, we added spices and diabetes-inducing amounts of sugar to ‘indigenize’ the colonizer’s gift. We created our own chai to appeal to the sensibilities of a doodh and lassi drinking population, while better complementing the tangy flavors of samosas and chutneys.

Every Indian family has their own morning routine, but each one also draws a sharp line between the ‘kids’ drinks’ and those for the adults. While growing up, every morning before school I was handed a scalding glass of Bournvita — the Cadbury’s malt drink that captured the imagination of an emerging middle class in post-liberalization India, and soothed the palates of a generation of children traumatized by Horlicks. Chai, on the other hand, was off-limits. The drink was a marker of maturity and adulthood; one had to wield caffeine responsibly.

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Photo by Farhan Khan on Unsplash

Most people can narrate a story about the time when they became aware of their adulthood. American TV classics, which I watched decade-late reruns of, had told me that this would be when I could order drinks in a dingy bar and did not move back into my parents’ apartment. Instead, at the brink of adulthood, I found myself staring down a steaming cup of chai at 6:30 a.m. in the middle of a Delhi winter. I was wearing my school uniform — worn down from suffering through several mildewy monsoons and scorching summers, almost ready to graduate from school. Getting chai in the morning was a big deal. Thus finally initiated into the fraternity of chai-drinkers, I was intoxicated.

Tetley bags, instant mixes, CTC, Darjeeling, Kahwa — I tried and tasted everything that was once a leaf and could be boiled with water. Chai became a fascination and an interest. You could tell a lot about a household or business by whether a) they offered you chai, b) what kind of chai you were served, and c) whether the chai came with biscuits (Mari Gold, no less). Each home has its own drinking habits. I remember my sister-in-law once remarking that she was appalled by how much tea my brother and I drank. I was offended. Three cups a day too much? Even within our family there are variations in preference. An early morning begins with my father taking his tea with paani, as a tray replete with a china pot and sugar cubes is trot out onto the terrace, Victorian style with a tiny amount of milk — the classy taste of a sarkari babu. Sometime later, I take my ‘doodh-waala’ version. The leaves boiled in a milk and a little water, until you are left with a thick brew, the cream coagulating at the surface if left too long.

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As a foreigner to America, I can analogize chai in India to coffee here. They both form the caffeine crutches for the daily drudgery of existence. I will contest, however, that Dunkin and Pret are no analogues for the universe of small chai shops that proliferate across India’s train platforms, traffic intersections and bazaars. During any walk you will encounter groups of people sitting on their haunches under the shade of a leafy tree or ambling in front of a storefront, making small talk over even smaller cups of chai. When tea was introduced in India, the country remained mired in the regressive rules of the caste system. There were limits on what you ate, who you ate it with, and who prepared your food. Tea, by virtue of being a late arrival, was not considered an ayurvedic food stuff and fell outside the realm of purity connotations. Indeed, its “neutrality” made it acceptable to company of those whose company one would otherwise spurn. The master and servant began to share tea, albeit in separate vessels, and co-workers from across the country jostled over workplace gossip.

Mass-produced in side shops and transported in six-cup carriers, chaidaans, to customers in shops or offices — from fancy multi-nationals encased in glass, to Sharma ji’s one-man law firm — chai is the invitation for the client, the guest, to stay a little longer and mull over shared prospects. Our obsession with the drink extends to our politics. The Prime Minister sidesteps criticisms by proclaiming himself to be a chaiwala — the job considered humble, but no less respectable, an ideal embodiment of a common man’s profession. Chai sacralizes the everyday.

And so you can imagine my indignation when I arrived in this country three years ago to find “Dirty Chai” being sold from a coffee truck. I know India has a bad rep for sanitation but calling our drink ‘dirty’ was plain rude. I was soon to find that the drink was a coffee-chai hybrid experiment. Clearly, it had been endowed with this name by some right-thinking barista who recognized the corruption of my beloved chai by ghastly, ghastly coffee.

I had come to college 7,000 miles away from home so I could try out new experiences, and I jumped headlong into seeking out chai. I sourced chai lattes, iced chai lattes, chaider, soy chai, giving each a fair shot, but being spurned each time. Everything felt…inauthentic. A sorry shadow of what I expected. “i tried everything to replicate ghar ka swaad,” a friend mulled over a late night text message rant, “tetley, double tetley, girnar, double girnar, tikkaway even sherkaan. it’s the one thing that I get distressed over — i don’t give two fucks about things like vada pav you feel? i think that’s one of the most special things about chai.” And yet, our taste buds were tortured with the abomination of soy chai, chocolate chai, vanilla chai — as the flavor of the masala itself was relegated to a sorry corner of our palate.

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In sophomore year of college I smuggled an induction stove into my dorm, my one act of rebellion. The pain of three-a-week problem sets and a demanding extracurricular schedule was too much to handle without chai. The pallid Blue State tea latte I had settled on, two parts hot water, one part steamed milk with a ‘masala chai’ tea bag, remained insufficient at its core. In the middle of the night, I stirred Red Label leaves into a milk powder-water concoction and sipped.

Nothing. The infernal beeping of the pedestrian signal outside my window returned

It was better than before, but not what I had been looking for. I craved the chai made over an open flame, with real milk that belonged to a cow until recently, and fresh ginger, cut and smashed in the grey stone mortar and pestle that’s been in my family for years. My Mexican suite mate, who I now often make this induction cooker chai for, sometimes complains about Mexican food in America. “It isn’t the same,” she muses, but is unable to verbalize her sentiments. That is how I feel about chai. Something will always be missing: the texture of the water, the subtle accents in milk tastes, the environment of consumption — in a roadside stall by the roaring traffic, or a cookie cutter cafe where all I hear is people hammering away at their keyboards. What is authentic?

I thought back to all the times I had sermonized on the ‘true’ nature of chai to my American friends, with possessiveness befitting an original inventor. I was reluctant to accept chai’s colonial history because it made me feel the drink wasn’t mine to give. The colonizers even control the vocabulary with which I speak and write. Arundhati Roy asked “What is the Morally Appropriate Language in Which to Think and Write?” For me the question became “What is the Morally Appropriate Drink to Punctuate My Day?”. “Guilt in this case is an unhelpful sentiment,” Roy pondered, “India as a country, a nation-state, was a British idea. So, the idea of English is as good or as bad as the idea of India itself. Writing or speaking in English is not a tribute to the British Empire…it is a practical solution to the circumstances created by it.” Indeed, the Chinese origin British import in the form of chai added another texture to the fabric of Indian cuisine. Maybe the chai tea latte, now in its fourth chapter in America, is an advancement, or at least, its existence Pareto-improving. I remember my Lululemon-wearing SoCal acquaintance from freshman year swore by the drink. Just as the Indian Tea Association created a billion-strong tea drinking nation from scratch, coffee houses are doing something similar in America. Maybe I need to abandon my expectations — accept that the iced soy chai tea latte is an American drink, and fairly so. All I know for sure is that I need to head home for a good cup of chai soon.

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