Chai Means Tea: Defending My Foray Into Food Snobbery

Feature photo by back to the 872

As a rule, I’m not picky about what I put in my body. I have a few hard limits, based on individual aesthetics and/or allergies — no shellfish, no cashews, no maraschino cherries — but I am blessed with a high metabolism, a hardy digestive system and a sense of adventure. Provided it doesn’t poison me or cause an allergic reaction, I’m not in the habit of indulging in food-snobbery.

Except when it comes to chai.

I hate the foul, sugary abomination that is American chai tea (a linguistic redundancy; more on that later). When I do break down and buy it, it starts a cycle of sugar-fueled anger at my own country for corrupting what should be a beautiful ambrosial substance, warping and defiling it and Americanizing it.

I was first introduced to it in 2004, in Boulder, Colorado, where I attended Naropa University. The school’s cafe was run by the Boulder Dushanbe Tea House, and they brewed up a mean cup of chai: thick, sweet, highly caffeinated and spicy enough to burn your mouth. Best of all, it was cheap.

Masala chai (literal translation from Hindi-Urdu: “spiced tea”), at its most basic, is sweetened black tea with warming spices and milk. Ginger and cardamom pods are an absolute must, though one can get creative and add a number of other spices such as cinnamon, fennel seeds, peppercorns, cloves, nutmeg, licorice root–all herbs generally aiding in digestion. There’s no set or proprietary recipe; each cup is as individual as its brewer.

Food, culture and economics are inextricably intertwined. They’re matters of importance in this age of globalization and appropriation, where the Starbucks grande decaf soy no-foam lattes are battling it out with Third Wave microroasting operations, where “localvore” is a trendy neologism. Is food a commodity or a luxury? How do we cope when culture is appropriated through our food? And why do we defend the decision to spend four dollars (half an hour of minimum wage pay in Illionois, for the record) on a drink that weighs in at 240 calories and 41 grams of sugar?

These are issues that go back hundreds of years. Most popular drinks – with the exception of booze, which has been encouraging bad decisions since the Neolithic age – have a tangled history of cross-cultural conflicts. The tea plant itself, Camellia sinensis, is a native of Eastern and Southeastern Asia, and infusions of its leaves and twigs were drunk as early as the Shang Dynasty in China, which began over 3000 years ago. Tea was one of the major trade items during the European imperial age. It was rarely drunk in India, until English colonialists opened up tea plantations and began pushing it on locals, seeking to create a captive and closed-loop market. Masala chai was created when the vendors added other spices to the tea to make it go further and reduce their own costs: masala chai is a byproduct of a violent occupation that lasted for nearly 90 years.

Like I said before, I’m not particularly picky about what I eat. Why I’ve chosen to take a stand on masala chai is, in some ways, inexplicable. I’m American, from Irish-Italian stock, and have no cultural stake in this, per say. I’m just someone who really, really likes masala chai. It’s gotten me through hangovers and exams and early morning dance classes; through unending winters in unheated houses; through recurring bouts of poverty, where I drank tea instead of eating breakfast or lunch, because it was all I could afford. It’s healthy, nourishing and comforting, until you start to value convenience over everything else and buy a 240 calorie chai latte from Starbucks.

The Slow Food organization, which is dedicated to a grassroots revolution in food production and consumption, advocates for people making the leap from consumer to “co-producer.” This phrase hints at the power inherent in small acts and the responsibility that we, the public, have been evading for too long: Take the time, slow down, be accountable for what you buy, make and eat.

In this spirit, here’s a simple recipe (courtesy of my roommate) for masala chai. And remember: They’re more like guidelines.

  • 4 teaspoons of coriander seeds
  • 4 teaspoons of peppercorns
  • 1 tablespoons of cardamom pods
  • 2 teaspoons of cloves
  • 3 cinnamon sticks
  • 6 ounces of ginger
  • ⅓ cup of black tea
  • 10 cups of water

Boil the herbs for 30 minutes, then turn off the heat and add the black tea. Steep for 15 minutes, and then strain. Drink with equal parts of milk and tea.