It’s 3 PM, and the afternoon lull at work is causing your eyelids to droop like desiccated flowers. Wandering into your local coffee establishment, you stand in line eagerly awaiting a strong brew to rouse your dulling senses. Suddenly, you overhear the person ahead of you in line.
“Yes, I’d like a grande chai tea latte, steaming hot. Skim milk, please.” Spot anything wrong with this order? First off, it’s sacrilegious to pour anything but full-fat milk into tea. I’m just kidding. We’re tolerant of all liquids here. However, I have a bone to pick with whoever decided that it was appropriate to put the words chai and tea together in one menu option. For those of you who may not know, chai is the word for tea in the Hindi language, and the utter ignorance of the modern and tolerant Western hemisphere, in which I have been raised, and the refusal to embrace this knowledge has baffled me for years.
A multitude of coffee and teashops internationally have included chai in their drink selections, yet they continue to refer to it as chai tea. To many of us, the spiced milk tea delicacy that is chai is nothing more than a caffeinated beverage that satisfies us momentarily before we embark in search of our next meal. However, to a contemporary South Asian woman such as myself, chai represents the vast history of a subcontinent with an even more decadent and varied cuisine.
This drink ties me to not only memories of evening chai and snacks with my family, abounding with hours of lively and thought-provoking discussion, but also the diversely illustrious background that I come from. Chai is so much more than a drink where a barista pumps your favorite flavored syrup into a cup. To me, chai is a drink that holds fond memories of my mother hovering over the stove, stirring and adding a multitude of spices and regaling me with tales of her childhood. My parents’ wishes, dreams, hopes, and aspirations all come out flowing like the tea from the sieve when we all sit together.
For many centuries, chai has been a symbol of a time when people put aside their work to have a steaming cup and bemoan the political corruption of the Indian bureaucracy. Calling this beverage chai tea is equivalent to redundantly saying latte coffee. So next time you feel the urge to consume an afternoon pick-me-up with an infusion of masalas, try to pay homage to the rich history of that brew and simply call it chai. Trust me, you’ll find yourself enjoying the even richer sip that follows as you ponder.