If there is one thing I know since 2001 (I was born in 1996, btw), is that chai cures everything. I have seen my mother embrace the phenomenon chai is and how it has been a constant companion for her. Douglas Adams accurately expressed her love for this beverage in the most poetic way possible, “A cup of tea would restore my normality”. I started drinking tea at the age of 8 and haven’t looked back since.
In India, Chai is about hospitality, to show love and care, we use tea. It is more than a beverage to start the day, as many lovers would say, it is an emotion. Chai is a source of bonding and refreshment. At Foodarketing, our days start with a tiny cup of tea and you can see the lack of motivation unless our daily dose of tea is served.
The “Indian Chai Tea” is an (incorrectly named) global drink; a trademark mixture of crushed tea leaves, milk, sugar, and water boiled together with love and sometimes ginger. Even though we associate Tea as a British attribute, one cannot negate the fact that chai is deeply a desi trait and a way of life.
The (infamous) millennials are the “chai sutta” fanatics. They gossip, hang out, discuss, relax and talk the most with a hot cup of tea and a burning cigarette. The how and why of this dynamic is inexplicable because maybe there is no logic, but I can certainly confirm that the duo was made for each other.
Since it is the unsung hero and the unofficial national drink, the socio-political turmoil by tea is interesting.
We all know a group of people at the neighborhood tea stall that discusses politics, and the current events every day. The anatomy of these (mostly male and old) groups of people and social hierarchy is a vast topic but you get the drift, don’t you?
During the colonial times, just like a creative marketing strategy for diamonds, tea was popularized in the Indian subcontinent and later in the West (for export business). The ads were mostly of elites drinking tea. It soon became the drink for the “intellectual”. It was a *brown* subject’s gift to the colonial establishment. According to Lutgendorf, “this imperial infusion, steeped in porcelain china pots, accompanied by pitchers of warm milk and spoonfuls of sugar, had begun to be savored by the bhadralok (well bred) residents of Calcutta”. The early reception was by the anglicized Parsis and Bengalis of India. The propaganda was to kill the Chinese market for tea and create India’s monopoly on tea production. During the independence struggle, babus were mostly seen sipping the drink. Post independence, the marketing was of tea being cent percent swadeshi. The clever marketing and obviously the wonderful drink that feels like a hug has made chai synonymous to relaxing and business at the same time.
Another surge in political importance of tea can be seen in the 2014 elections. Congress member, Aiyar’s inconsiderate comment on the Prime Minister candidate’s previous job as a “chaiwaala” sparked a lot of controversies. In a country where 90% of the economy consists of the informal sector and with a chai stall in every corner of each village and city, this elitist analogy definitely got BJP a few more fans. The ideological debate of the right wing may not have a lot of support but the PM would be a “common man” might be one of the reasons for the sudden change in support. Vikas (help at my residential area’s chai stall) says he trusts in BJP because he can identify with them. Congress has acquired the image of royalty for some time now. BJP’s victim act definitely helped.
But! Somebody smart said where there’s chai, there is hope.
Several decades ago, chai was served in small clay pots (kulhar). While the Kulhars are still popular, plastic cups, tiny glasses, and steel tumblers have become the vessels of choice across most of India too. (Singing Tree in CR Park is our favorite for kulhar tea!)
I remember my terrible mathematics board exam, I came back home and the only thing I did other than crying was to have a cup of tea made by my mother.
All my college exams were followed by college canteen’s terribly sweet tea or the wonderful honey lemon tea with my best friend.
My sister only drinks green tea.
Another friend of mine is fond of black tea.
All my friends have their specifications, elaichi, ginger, clove; a specific amount of sugar, milk, no milk, milk before, milk later, chamomile tea, earl gray, honey tea, lemon, honey lemon and the possibilities are endless.
For me, the smell of chai is what makes me feel at home.
What about you?