As we traveled throughout India researching chai, we would devote time each day to sitting around chai stalls conversing with chai wallahs and their patrons. We casually interviewed people about their chai habits and what they thought made a good cup of masala chai. We were also attempting to gather an oral history of how this omnipresent drink came to be. One question we consistently asked people was, “What is the origin of masala chai?” The overwhelming response to our informal survey was that it was “grandmother’s chai.”
Grandmother, the traditional caretaker of the household, would brew a blend of plant roots, bark and seeds if a family member became ill or as a tonic to stay healthy through the changing seasons. In fact, many of the ingredients now found in a classic cup of masala chai are useful for treating colds, flu, stomach ailments, digestive problems, lung issues and other common maladies. These family recipes were handed down from mother to daughter to granddaughters over generations spanning hundreds of years.
Then came the Brits. Back in Britain, folks had developed quite an expensive habit of drinking Chinese tea, which became their most popular beverage. To make a long story of war, slavery, deforestation and sweeping Western imperialism short, Britain’s East India Company, seeking independence from the high cost of Chinese tea, established its own tea plantations in northeast India. This turned India into a big, profitable tea party, opening the floodgates to an ocean of tea on the subcontinent.
One generally held belief (or chai conspiracy theory) we heard repeatedly during our travels is that the British, knowing tea’s addictive properties and seeing an enormous new local market, at first dispensed tea at no cost to the Indian population. This marketing plan paid off, as India became among the world’s largest consumer and producer of tea. Eventually tea, with its energy-giving medicine, made its way into Grandma’s spice decoctions. Add some milk and sugar, originating from both the Indian Ayurvedic and British teatime traditions, and masala chai was born. There is, of course, no way to sub- stantiate this chai creation story, but it seems plausible to us.
Later, the British tradition of tea sipping seeped into Indian culture. Chai dukans, or chai shops, became the new meeting place where men would gather to drink chai and socialize. At dhabas, the Indian 24-hour truck stops, Punjabi truck drivers demanded a strong cup of masala chai as a restorative drink to get them through the long hours of driving.
Chai is such an integral part of Indian culture, I think any Indian who scrutinizes America’s recent chai craze might wonder, “What took you so long?” As a foolish American chai lover, I offer my humble thanks to the long line of grandmothers on the other side of the world who gave us the gift of masala chai.