Forget Culture Wars, It’s Chai Wars!

Chai Chai Garam Chai

Cultural (Chai) Wars by Robynn

It’s time to speak out. The writers and editors here at Communicating Across Boundaries have been silent on the subject for far too long. But that silence is over. For the record, let it be known, this is the time for clarity and decisiveness. It is the time to speak truth. As a society we’ve been duped. We’ve been deceived. We’ve been kept in the dark.  Normally Marilyn and I reluctantly write on these types of issues. Our cross-cultural training demands sensitivity and respect. We’ve been well versed in appreciating value differences, in respecting nuance and cultural norms and conventions.

However, having said all that, sometimes things are not just different they are plainly and universally wrong. Under those circumstances, in those specific situations it is not only appropriate, it is necessary–our prophetic mandate–to identify the wrong and to bring it out into the light.

Today is that day.

Chai is chai. It is a particular beverage. It is not the mamby-pamby, shallow hearted, skim milk based, foam topped, overly cinnamoned, limply spiced, paper cupped drink you’ve been trained to think it is. It is not available in grocery stores in tetra pack boxes. It cannot be reduced to a small mesh tea bag. Merely mixing cinnamon and a pinch of cardamom into the tea bag and sealing it in a box with a fancy label doesn’t make it chai. It cannot be pimped in packaged plastic cups that are hidden in the depths of a cold machine and then punctured and perforated and dribbled into the meaningless cup below

Chai, true chai, is an experience. It’s a marvelous marriage of milk and water and dark tea and sugar and spices. It takes time and love to make the complexities of flavours shine.  The equipment needed is simple: a pot, a spoon, a strainer. Although there are variations on mixing methods and spices, one thing is certain, chai is an event.

In South Asia when a guest comes to visit, or a friend pops in, chai is served. Hospitality is incomplete without the warm ritual of chai. Hearts are better shared with a cup of chai in your hand. It’s the beverage that melts the heart’s reserve. Disappointments and sorrows are more keenly lamented over hot chai, strained and steaming. Celebrations and common joys are incomplete without fragrantly spiced chai.

Chai has meaning and hidden complexities. You drink chai with someone you are at peace with. If there is friction or betrayal at work in a relationship, that person is not served chai. If ever you hear, “They didn’t even serve me chai!” you can know there is something a wry in that relationship. Chai means reconciliation. It means harmony and restored friendship.

Chai is served at engagement ceremonies, at weddings, after a baby is born, after the news that someone has died. Chai is served when family comes to visit, or a neighbor comes to gossip. It’s served at church. When you go for a picnic you bring chai. First thing in the morning, last thing in the evening, chai. People drink it at sporting events, at the train station, at the airport, at school functions, at business meetings. When a contract is agreed on, and the papers are signed, the deal is sealed with chai. Whenever a house is sold, whenever a bank loan is negotiated, whenever a marriage is arranged there is chai. Shopping for saris, for silk, for carpets, for bangles, for pots and pans? Undoubtedly you’ll be served chai.

It’s served in china teacups, in small ceramic bowls, in little disposable clay cups. In Pakistan it used to often come in a colourful enamel tea pot, green or beige or blue. When it’s especially hot, mothers pour their chai into the saucer, they blow on it gently to cool it for their child.

The elderly and the very young drink it. The sick, the lame, the robust all drink it. The broken hearted and the elated drink it. The upper classes drink it. The disenfranchised drink it. It’s the drink of community, it’s the beverage of unity. 

You may continue to place your order for faux chai through your car window to the voice, crackling and distant, in the small box. You can rummage through your coin purse to procure the correct change before you, “see (them) at the window.” You have all the freedom in the world to specify decaffeinated, or 2% milk, or no foam. But know this: the drink you are consuming, the beverage you are sipping, may in fact be delicious, but it is not chai.

Recipe for Chai

(serves two—-chai can be had on your own, it’s a meditative drink that way, but it’s always better had with a friend or seven)

1 cup of whole milk

1 cup of water

1 tablespoon of loose leaf tea (Liptons Red Label, or Taj Mahal)

2 heaping teaspoons of sugar (or to taste)

2 pods of cardamom, broken

1 inch of cinnamon stick, broken

½ inch of fresh ginger grated or chopped*

1 pinch of black pepper*

Bring water and milk and spices and sugar to a boil. Add tea leaves. Simmer 2 or 3 minutes until it’s the wonderful warm proper rich colour of chai. Strain into cups or a teapot . Best served with something sweet and something savory. (*ginger and black pepper are only ever added during the winter! Summer chai is minimally spiced with a titch of cardamom and cinnamon.)

We, the writers at Communicating Across Boundaries, rarely ask you to share our posts. But this one? This one you need to share. Sincerely, the purveyors of real and fine chai.

Picture Credit: the incomparable Jason Philbrick!

33 thoughts on “Forget Culture Wars, It’s Chai Wars!

  1. Touche, Robynn. But, let’s dropped the testosterone terminology of war. Let us rather open the space to the cosmology of taste! Yes, so many varietal nuances due to the temper of steel dakshi’s on railway platforms, the chips off the rims of ceramic cups adding ‘who knows what’ to the brew, the number of times re-heated, re-boiled, yet topped off at just the right temperature and mix of buffalo milk and sugar to ‘hit the spot’ on a 5′ or 45’c day. Oh yes, weighing the existential factors giving clarity to the brew world harmony will, indeed, truly come around the table with a cuppa’.

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  2. I love this! In my host country chai was just black tea with sugar, no spices, and — heaven forbid! — no milk. But the chai culture was the same. No breakfast, no visit, no major purchase was complete without chai.
    I had a difficult time adjusting to chai-less life in America. I remember the day I cried because the student dean hadn’t offered me tea in our 30 minute meeting. Oh for the culture of chai . . .

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  3. Thank you so much for this recipe! I spent a month in India last year and have been fumbling around in attempts to find a recipe that works. Bless everything, you have done it. I tried it this morning and will never go back! Thank you so much for this post!

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  4. PS; Just read your recipe over, Robynn, and I noticed that you say that ginger and black pepper are only added in the winter. Perhaps the difference in Sindh is that it’s; hotter than the rest of the country so they only use the cardamom.

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  5. I make mine with just cardamom pods cracked open. It’s the way we always had it in Sindh, known as “especial chai.” I never had it with the other spices until we returned to the USA and chai tea bags came on the market. Ordinary chai in Sindh did not have any spices, but just the tea leaves boiled up first, milk added to the right color, and then sugar unless you had a diabetic in the family. One time when I was having a number of women for tea one of the younger women who lived on our compound came early. so I thought, “Aha, now I’ll learn the right way to make it.” So I took her to the kitchen and asked her to show me the way they made their chai. Well what I learned was that when it was about ready, she added more milk or more tea leaves to “make it the right color.” Great post, Robynn and a great conversation. It’s impossible to make authentic chai with those tea bags. Bettie, you had different social circles than I did. I wonder if you were served special chai with other spices than cardamom (“elachee” in Sindhi and Urdu).

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    1. Polly, sometimes I was served tea with elachee, but 99% of the time it was just the plain black tea, sugar and milk which also is called chai. Everyone seemed to know when the color was just right. Personally, I prefer the plain desai like you and I “grew up” on! However, the spicy is quite good. I’m enjoying this conversation. BTW I’m preparing chicken curry, dhal, potato spinach, and homemade khulfi for today. Then a cup of steaming hot tea.

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      1. Talking of recipes, could we possibly have yours for khulfi. David, our six year old expert taste tester who loves pukka dehi and ice cream would love to try it out. Gavin and Alison Murray

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  6. p.s. Dilmah loose tea is my favorite for black tea. I got to convert many friends to the true way of making chai/chiya last year in the US. Dilmah can be had on Amazon.

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      1. Dilma is also my favorite but I usually bring it back from Egypt. It is nice to know it is available via Amazon. I wish there was a way to substitute the white sugar in the Chai but I’m sure it would affect the taste (Agave for instance?)

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  7. Robynn–Many, many years ago someone put me onto a way of making chai that has NEVER failed me. In Pakistan chai is made with whole, unpasteurized milk from BUFFALO. Apparently it has a higher fat content than cow’s milk. It is also different from milk that is pasteurized. So, this person (who I do not remember) told me that they made their chai with evaporated milk. I started making chai with evaporated milk and it was amazing! Indians and Pakistanis started telling me it was the best chai they had ever had. It was so authentic; it had a property that chai made with American whole milk did not have; the color was perfect; and etc. etc. I always have a couple of cans of evaporated milk in my cupboard. If you ask me the proportion of water to evap’d milk, I would have to say that I have never measured it:) This is because when I was taught how to make chai as a kid, I was taught to boil the water, tea leaves, sugar and spices together FIRST, and when that had boiled for a couple of minutes you add the milk and get it to the “right color.” My “guestimate” is that the proportion of water to evap’d milk is 1 c. water to 3/4 cup of evap’d milk. But, you have to play with it until you KNOW what the right color is!! And, a note here: I am not talking about SWEETENED condensed milk. However, having said that: I do have a friend who likes to use sweetened condensed milk, but I find that it makes it too sweet to use only this. Again, a matter of taste:)
    Thanks for a GREAT blog!!!

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    1. Your method is the method I learned as a child as well….I was converted to the Indian method when I arrived there and I’ve been doing it that way ever since. Now. About. Evaporated. Milk. Hmmm! I’m going to have to try that..but I do so with a titch of skepticism. However, I admire you, and I trust your chai drinking instincts…..So! I’ll keep you posted! ;)

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      1. I really like evaporated milk. Just be sure it is not “filled” as some evaporated milks are. Another suggestion is to just pour the milk into the tea until it is the right color. I think we should ask one of the best Pakistani restaurants what kind of milk they use as normally the tea is quite good.

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  8. Oh, that is just hilarious! I laughed out loud, knowing where this post was going from the start. I thought it was a lost cause, trying to convince people of the truth of the authentic chai drink and experience. Thank you for bringing this issue to the forefront of all serious conversation:-) Maybe the cable news channels will pick it up.
    I serve chai in my home and even recently picked up stainless steel cups from India to serve it in the authentic fashion. People rave and say “I’ve never had chai like this before!” And I say, graciously of course, “That’s because you’ve never had REAL chai.” Taste and see the goodness. Sit and chat. It’s like Mma Ramostwe and her red bush tea in Botswana. Restoration, friendship, community, peace. . . in all things chai. Thanks Robynn! Continue the good fight.

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  9. After reading Marilyn’s book I HAD to find how to make chai. Only once I had tasted it made my an Indian woman at a small gathering, and wow. So, I got the green cardamom from local International market (Rochester, NY) and the other stuff and set to making real chai. It was tasty!

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  10. I’ve only had true chai once, when friends threw a giant tea party for their son’s high school graduation open house. The family had really gotten into tea. They had seven tea “stations” set up around their property. My husband manned the yerba mate station, I was in charge of southern sweet tea, their friends from Pakistan set up a chai stand and also served little vegetable fritters (I forget what they’re called), and so on. It was one of the best parties I’ve ever attended!

    Even before moving to Argentina, I knew that yerba mate was more than a beverage. My husband came across a great essay in Spanish which he translated. I’m sorry I don’t know who to give credit to, because it’s been too many years. But I saved his English translation. I really wanted to share it with you, because I think yerba mate for Argentines is much like chai is for those in South Asia:

    THE MATE
    Mate is not a beverage. Well, it is a liquid and it enters through your mouth, but it is not a beverage. In Argentina, nobody drinks mate because they are thirsty. It’s more of a custom, like scratching yourself.

    When someone arrives at your home, the first thing out of your mouth is “hello” and the second thing is “Unos mates?” or “Some mates?” This happens in all homes, in those of the rich and those of the poor. It happens among gossipy and talkative women, and among serious and immature men. It happens among the old in nursing homes and among adolescents as they study or hang out. It is the only thing that fathers and sons share without arguments or accusations. The Peronistas and the radicals drink mate without questioning. In summer and in winter. It is the only thing that victims and perpetrators share, the good and the bad.

    When you have a son, you begin to give him mate when he asks for it. You give it to him tepid and with lots of sugar and he feels grown up. You feel great pride when your offspring begins to sip mate. As they get older they choose how to drink it: sweet or plain, hot or cold, with orange peel or with herbs or a little squirt of lemon.

    This is the only country in the world where the decision to go from being a child to being a man happens on a particular day. It has nothing to do with long pants, going to university or moving far away from your family. Here we become adults on the day we first drink mate by ourselves – the day a child puts the teapot on the stove and drinks his first mate alone.

    The soul of Argentina is intertwined with yerba. Yerba is the only thing that exists in all home, always. With inflation, with hunger, with a military government, with a democracy. And if some day there is no yerba, a neighbor has it and will give it to you. No one is denied yerba.

    When you meet someone for the first time you drink some mates. When you first meet, people ask “sweet or plain?” The response is “However you drink it.”

    Mate is exactly the opposite of television. It makes you communicate if you are with someone and it makes you think when you are alone. It is the solidarity of drinking washed mates because the conversation is so good. It’s the conversation that is so good, not the mate. It’s respect for the opportunity to talk and to listen. You speak while the other sips, and you are allowed the sincerity to say “That’s enough. Time to change the yerba.”

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    1. I love this!!! Mate as a rite of passage, a statement, an event, a cultural reality!! Thanks for sharing this translation. And I love that type of TEA PARTY you mentioned. What a great idea!

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  11. Ahhhh. I can taste it and feel the warm mug between my hands. At boarding school it was served at the morning break, with buttered bread. In Africa, the spices don’t play as much of a role, but the flavor of the black tea is sufficient. Hot, creamy and sweet. Comfort! Thank you for breaking the silence :)

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