The Chai-Tea Conundrum

Lost in translation: What does “chai” really mean?

The chai-tea craze has been a big trend in the past few years.  From Oprah to your local “hipster” tea and coffee place, everyone wanted to jump aboard the oh-so-very-exotic train of this aromatic and arguably healthy tea from India. There are, of course, many problems with this situation, jam-packed as it is with issues of exotification and appropriation. But the biggest thing? “Chai” means “tea”. So when you ask for a chai-tea, you’re actually just asking for “tea-tea”.

What you actually want to ask for is “masala chai”. Masala is the word for a miscellaneous blend of spices, and most commonly includes ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg and clove. As the word implies, there could be many other spices involved as well, and the recipe can vary not only regionally across India, but even house-to-house. If you’re making it the authentic way, all of these spices are in their natural form, unlike the powdered blends you’ll find in stores.

Set to boil in a milk and water mixture, this masala, then combined with loose black tea, forms what’s now become—to Indians and outsiders—the “drink of India.” There are several varieties of tea grown in India, but the most popular are the Assam tea from the eponymous state in northeast India, Darjeeling tea from a similarly northern region or Nilgiri tea, from the Western Ghats mountain range in the southern state of Kerala. Though coffee is immensely popular in India, putting the nation in the top 10 of coffee producing countries, India competes with China for the title of largest tea producer, with an average of 900,000 tons of tea each year. It falls a bit behind in the race of exporters though; nearly 70 percent of India’s tea is consumed by the nation itself.

 

Interestingly, chai itself was largely foreign to India as a casual drink; instead, it was primarily used for its healing properties as part of Ayurvedic practices—an ancient Indian holistic tradition of medicine. In fact, it wasn’t until the late 19th century, when the British East India Company sought to edge out the Chinese monopoly on tea production and export, that chai entered the daily life of an Indian. As inseparable as it from the current culture, it’s a very new and modern addition relative to how old the region is. Nonetheless, Indians quickly adopted chai as their own, adapting the British style of drinking tea to invent something better suited to them: tea and scones became chai and samosas.

There are other, more regionally specific variations in presentation and recipe. A staple to Mumbai is the call of “chaiwallahs” serving a “cutting-chai” at every street corner and railway platform. Simply put, it’s a regular cup of chai cut in half, making it cheaper, smaller and perfect for the fast-paced bustle of the city. Of course, filled to the brim of a tiny glass with no handle, your option is to either down a scorching gulp of chai or let your fingers dance on the rim as you pass it from hand to hand.

Likewise, in other parts of India, chai is served in a small, handleless steel cup with a steel bowl placed directly on top it, trapping the heat inside. Together, the cup and bowl are flipped upside down before being given to the customer. When you’re ready to drink, you have to slowly lift the cup—essentially peeling it off—to escape the suction. There’s a kind of art to it, with both the cup and bowl being extremely hot to the touch.

So that’s chai. In fact, they’re all types of chai. You can imagine why chai-tea would create some confusion. What kind of chai? Masala, “aadrak” (ginger) or “ilaichi” (cardamom) are just some of the most common requests. It’s true that in South Asia, you could easily get away with simply asking for a chai—it’s generally assumed you mean a masala chai. But that said, there’s still no reason to add “tea” after the word. Once we reach Starbucks and their “chai-tea latte,” we’ve entered a whole new set of oddities. The point of a latte, of course, is the addition of milk. Except, chai already includes milk. Now you’re just saying the same thing three times. And though the current understanding of latte is the milk foam, in Italian, latte just means milk.

At this point, “chai-tea latte” is ingrained in every Starbucks/hipster cafe chai lover. And in the long run, it’s not even that big of a deal. Sure, it’ll draw a few chuckles or even a shake of the head from the South Asian person standing behind you in line, but the question becomes, how far do we let this ignorance run? It’s all fun and games when it comes to something as trivial as chai, but the trend of appropriation has a long history that’s steeped in the discrimination, racial violence, and marginalization of minority groups.

 

To make things clear, it’s not the adoption of chai in the Western Hemisphere that’s appropriating Indian culture. It’s the ignorance of the language and a desire to make things sound exotic that’s problematic with the chai-tea fad. While you could argue that adding “tea” makes it apparent for someone new to the world of chai, somewhere down the line you had to learn exactly what an espresso or a cappuccino was, What is it about chai that’s different or more difficult? Let’s be real. Why would you want to ask for a chai-tea latte, when you could just ask for a chai?

This piece was originally published in Emerson’s Atlas Magazine (March 2016).
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