In 2018, I had an opportunity to talk about chai and share my love for it at the Art Museum in Philadelphia. I still remember when I got this opportunity, at the time I was pregnant with our first baby, and was over the moon. To be able to share the culture and tradition of chai and how I grew up drinking it got me too excited! During the event, I shared the history of chai and two of The Chai Bar's famous chais – Classic Masala and Kashmiri Pink Chai. Now, I’m officially sharing bits of that talk in this first blog post on our website!
I'll start with introducing myself - my name is Madura and I came to the United States in 2014 to pursue a Masters in Financial Engineering. I know, you might be wondering what is financial engineering? Well, it’s a fancy name and degree for a combination of advanced math, stats, finance and computer science. I liked the advanced math and stats part of it, but the rest just wasn’t my cup of tea.
Anyway, I ended up completing my grad school and getting a job as a Data Analyst at Comcast. I would go to work at 7:30 am and dream about having freshly brewed chai around 10 am and again in the afternoon around 3 pm when I felt most sleepy at work. I soon learned that my work at Comcast also wasn’t my cup of tea… but it did allow for ideas to start brewing in my head.
I eventually decided to quit my job and start The Chai Bar because
- I love everything about CHAI and food
- Whenever I went to coffee shops to grab a quick hot cup of chai I found a serious lack of REAL chai. The chai that I bought at coffee shops wasn’t even close to what I’m used to drinking at home. It was a lot of corn syrup, imitated flavors, and preservative packed in one bottle.
The chai here doesn’t taste like the chai I grew up with in India. To me, chai is made with fresh herbs, spices, flowers, and healthy ingredients, unlike typical coffee shop chai.
In India chai is a lot more than just a beverage. It is so deeply ingrained in the cultural fabric of India that it finds a rightful position in every aspect of life. In India, guests are known as “emissaries of god”, they come by any time without any notice. And when they come, you serve. You almost always serve them chai. I remember back in India, whenever a guest came to our home my mom or dad would immediately ask me to make a pot of chai. I would fondly make chai for everyone as I liked making chai my special way. My brother and sister-in-law fondly started calling me ‘The Chai Master’ because they liked my chai the best.
Here's a picture of chai from a mountain top chai shop in my hometown, Konkan:
So, “chai” literally means strongly brewed spiced milk-tea in Hindi ladies and gentlemen, and when you say, "chai tea" you are really saying "tea tea".
I have had a hard time here in United States because I’m so used to making and offering chai to anyone and everyone who comes to our home, may that be a postman, delivery guy, repair guy, or guests. It doesn’t matter! When anyone comes, we serve. I always tried to offer chai to people who came to our home, but it just felt weird to them and each time my husband tried to explain to me that it doesn’t work like that here. It's not India! Well, that’s true.
Chai is ubiquitous in India, served on every street corner – all day and night. The person who makes chai is called ‘chai wallah’ or ‘chai wali’ depending on who is making it – a male or female. To give a rough estimate of the number of chai wallahs, count the number of Starbucks you usually see in a day in the city and multiply that by 100, that’s how many chai shops you'd have if your city was in India. One can’t completely experience India without witnessing its chai culture.
Chai is more than just a trend. It’s the amalgamation of culture, kindness, tradition, and is an integral part of the rhythm of life, from the mountains of Kashmir to the seaside of Kanyakumari. Chai is a conversation starter on dates, an essential element in the picture-perfect romance in the rain, every student's buddy through the tough college journey, every young adult’s comrade in their steep uphill professional climb, an indispensable accompaniment to mouthwatering snack-plates of fritters in the cool mountain retreats, a refreshing break after a hard day at work, and a dependable friend when life doesn't seem like a bed of roses.
So, where did this chai come from and when? Like the history of many famous food items, the origins of chai are steeped in legend and contradictory accounts. Believe it or not, in ancient India, chai was not the chai we know today. It was known as a healing concoction made by brewing herbs, flowers and spices. The heat from ginger and black pepper was believed to stimulate digestion; the antiseptic properties in cloves were thought to relieve pain; cardamom was used as a mood elevator; cinnamon supported circulation and respiratory function; and star anise was known to freshen the breath. Today, there are 1,700,608 varieties of masala chai which varies from person to person and region to region. Chai also doesn’t mean only masala chai- there are a number of chai that exist. Add any combination of flowers, herbs, and spices you like, along with tea leaves, milk, and sugar and viola, that’s a new blend of chai.
One story goes that tea is believed to have been discovered by mistake 5000 years ago when the Emperor of China found tea leaves in his pot of boiling water- which changed the color of the water. Out of his scientific curiosity, he tasted the drink and liked it. And long back, tea became a staple of Chinese culture.
Another legend says the tea shrub was discovered in Assam by the British in 1823. Talking about Assam, it has an old connection with tea. The Singhpo tribe in Assam have been using tea leaves as medicine since at least the 12th century. So, Singhpos are believed to be India’s first tea drinkers. It was the Singhpo chief, Bisa Gam, who introduced tea to two British men, Robert Bruce and his brother Charles in 1823. Soon, Britains decided to establish tea plantations as an alternative to the expensive Chinese tea. And the tea production and industry grew significantly under the British Raj (British rule of India). Today, India is the second largest producer of tea in the world, producing an average of over 900,000 tons every year with over 70% of the tea produced in the nation being consumed within the nation instead of being exported.
So, when and where was milk added to tea? Tea historians believe that it was probably first developed by the traders and travelers from Maharashtra, Gujarat or West Bengal who had easy and plenty access to good quality milk.
Despite chai’s link to a painful history of British colonialism, chai is a most loved and served Indian drink. It takes practice and patience to brew this surprisingly simple to make drink. For those who get it right, there is nothing quite like it. A fresh and delicious cup of chai is a work of alchemy.
Over the centuries, this drink has evolved and today there are a lot of variants of chai each with its own distinct flavor which is subtly different from every other. At The Chai Bar, it is our endeavor to bring to the American lifestyle this wonderful experience called chai in its most authentic form. Come join us and try your first cup of chai! And don’t forget, when you sip a cup of chai it’s not just a blend of spices, herbs, flowers, and tea with milk, it’s the amalgamation of popular culture, tradition, diversity, history, and stories in one cup!
Hope y’all enjoyed reading this blog post and learned something new. We sincerely hope you try our chai. If you have any questions, please feel free to comment below or reach out to us.