By Amaara Samji, published January 23rd
Chai is a popular drink in India and within Indian communities. According to Indian folklore, chai dates back around 5,000 years. Chai in Hindi means tea and comes from the Mandarin word "cha". Modern masala chai is a spiced tea brewed with milk and sweetened with sugar or honey. Many Indians drink chai with their friends and family. In my Indian Muslim community, chai is an important part of our heritage that brings people together to enhance social experiences.
Chai has been an important part of our culture for many years. In Indian folklore, chai came from an Indian king who strived to create an ayurvedic drink for their people. Ayurvedic medicine is a traditional healing practice from India. This chai is believed to contain no milk, sugar, or tea leaves.
In the 16th century trade for tea began. Tea was introduced to Europe from China as a therapeutic and healing drink. At this time The East Indian Company moved into India and expanded their trade routes. This laid the groundwork for the British to colonize India. When the demand for tea in Europe grew, The East Indian Company decided to create tea plantations in India and found a tea leaf indigenous to the land. Indian tea plantations became more popular than British and Chinese led cultivation with plantations in various regions in India. After World War I, modern masala chai became more popular. Railroad stations started selling chai; merchants added spices like ginger and cardamom, and added milk and sugar like the British. After India gained its independence from the United Kingdom the price of chai became affordable to the masses. Chai became the official drink of India and became the country's largest industry.
Chai is a celebration of Indian culture. Tazim Kassam is my Masi, which means my mother's sister. She describes chai as more of a concept. “Western countries have adopted the chai, but their version is not the same as brewing the spiced tea at home. Chai reminds me of back home, my family and my friends. I am at home when I'm drinking chai.” The western world has taken the idea of chai, changing the recipe to attract a different audience. The taste of western chai tea is muted and the name translates to "tea tea" which is redundant. People order chai tea thinking it’s associated with south asian culture, therefore exotic, but “chai tea” lacks authenticity.
What makes chai so special? Perhaps the reason could be the spices that vary from different parts of India or the recipes passed down over generations. Maybe what makes chai so unique is the healing properties of the spices- cinnamon lowers blood pressure, cloves are full of antioxidants, cardamom and ginger have anti-inflammatory properties. There are also other spices that can be added. However, I think chai is so special for all those reasons and also for the memories and connections made over a cup of chai. My mother Taslim Samji explains, “When I think about chai, I think of the people I have had chai with.” Chai is often served at gatherings with friends and family. “Chai helps you enjoy the moment, reminding you of back home and close friends.” Taslim talks about their first time having chai at their Vadima’s house. Vadima means father’s older brother's wife. Taslim’s Vadima would give them and their younger cousins chai. “She loved kids and this is how she showed us love. We love her for this.”
After imigrating and having to assimilate to western cultures, chai has brought many people close to their heritage and culture. Shrusti Goswami says, “Drinking chai every morning and evening with my family made me feel included in some secret culture. Just a simple act made me feel connected to a country so far away.” Chai starts a conversation and brings a sense of warmth. At my religious center, which we call khane (caa-neigh), chai used to be served on the last Friday of the month and on special occasions. Chai nights entice more community members to attend khane and socialize over a cup of chai. It builds community and makes khane feel like home.
Learning about people and their culture practices can help us develop a greater appreciation for the diversity found in the communities we live in. Chai is made with many spices and in many ways. This is the recipe I got from my mother. You start by boiling water and spices in a saucer. I use cloves, cardamom, cinnamon and fennel. Exact measurements are not necessary. If you want to enjoy the flavour of more spice add more spices. Then you add black tea and as much milk as you like. Homogeneous milk works best. When the mixture boils again, strain it into a cup and add as much sugar as you like. My Masi describes beautifully that “there’s a lot of warmth, love and sugar in chai.”