The aroma takes over the house, promptly at 7:30 every morning. Just a whiff of the boiling pot of milk coupled with the piquant confluence of cardamom, ginger and cloves triggers every cell of my body. The right concoction of leaves, spices and milk yields one of my husband’s best creations – Chai!
Where I come from, Chai is more than just a beverage – it is a physical and emotional pick-me-up. Folklore has it that Chai was introduced several thousand years ago by a monarch in India. What began as an Ayurvedic supplement for good health, has now evolved into a wholesome blend of flavors. Assam’s tea plantations instigated by the British East India company was the Big Bang Theory to Chai’s evolution in India. With the India Tea Company’s workers forced to take frequent tea breaks to improve sales, Chai slowly started to tiptoe its way into every household. Mahatma Gandhi frowned upon Chai consumption, considering it a colonial practice. Now, it has become a quintessential drink in our homes. Chai’s odyssey over the years has led to variations in flavor that suit every individual’s palate and/or needs. In my house, morning Chai is infused with cardamom and cloves, whereas Chai brewed for the treatment of common cold has a dash of pepper in it, and the weekend’s ‘Special’ Chai undoubtedly calls for crushed ginger.
Chai is the spine to Indians that supports our everyday life. Moving across the globe, however, I learned that Chai has a completely different definition – one that dilutes and sometimes opposes my enamor of this elixir. In the West, Chai has several identities – Chai ‘Tea’ latte, Chai spiced latte or Pumpkin spiced latte. It’s not just the nomenclature, but also the palate that’s wrong, in my humble opinion of course. A news article reviewed Chai Latte as a ‘sweet and cloying’ drink that was intolerable. It was reported as a cocktail of a pudding and spiced milk. I risked it all to try this westernized beverage, and to my astonishment, the reviews were not wrong. The concept of garam Chai had been butchered, re-concocted enough to suit a western palate and ruined enough to annoy an actual Chai lover. This was definitely not a rainy-day-with-hot-pakodas type of Chai, but a dessert drink which is still highly subjective.
Chai, in India, is an all-encompassing drink – available to all and available everywhere. A vivid memory I hold is one of my childhood train journeys. The clickety-clacks of the Indian railways against the frequent singsong voices of the vendors’ ‘chai’ hollers were music to my ears. I would seldom walk down a street and not come across a hot brewing pot of garma-garam chai.
If it’s still unclear, I am a Chai bhakt and it red-carpets the way to my heart- and also cake perhaps – because, why not?