On the Pleasures of Chai

The first time I experienced chai tea was at a Victorian teahouse during my later teen years. A close friend and I had long wanted to have tea at the elaborately styled cafe, decorated in dainty florals and lacy ruffles, though in looking back, it seems a bit odd. We were well past the years when it would have been cute for little girls to show an interest in dressing up for tea. And it was not the sort of place that the trendy twenty-somethings we so wanted to be would have frequented – the clientele easily averaged an age double my own at the time. Though I now consider myself quite a tea lover, at that time in my life, I had little interest in the stuff and can’t remember what I found so enticing about the teahouse concept. But we indulged in our quirky plan and enjoyed ourselves nonetheless.

The most lasting memory I have of our tea was deciding to try the Dai Chai Latte, aptly advertised as “gingerbread in a cup.” The description of this holiday drink brought to mind all the warmth of those fall flavors that I savor when the weather turns cold. Our chais were easily one of the most delicious drinks that either of us had ever tasted and from this experience, my love of chai was born.

Since that time, I’ve tried more chais than I can count. Coming home from college, I remember feeling quite sophisticated to be ordering chai when out to coffee with a caffeine-loving friend. I became such a sucker for chai that I’ve succumbed to ordering the Starbucks version which I find rather imbalanced, lacking in sweetness and bitterly spicy. I’m more partial to testing out the independent coffeehouse varieties, and although these are probably concocted from mixes not so drastically different than those used by Starbucks, they tend to taste that much better when enjoyed from a mug thrown by a local potter. During a cross-country road trip my husband and I took in 2009, a pre-planned and highly anticipated pit stop at a specialty independent chai house in Portland, Oregon marks one of the very worst chai experiences of my life (I will refrain from disclosing the name of said chai house on this blog in the hopes that a new and inexperienced employee prepared my drink at the time and has since been fired due to their inability to master the art of chai-making). I’ve ordered it with the highest of expectations at Indians restaurants in the US, only to be sorely disappointed by the watery and not-so-sweet tea drinks served to me. Some more noteworthy chai experiences include having it prepared in the traditional Indian method by Jordan, the idealistic, ashram-visiting, then-boyfriend of a good friend; stirring up a homemade pot of chai in my own kitchen from my slightly faded memory of Jordan’s recipe; and requesting a good dose or two of pumpkin syrup in my chai when on offer at Bean Hollow, my favorite independent coffeeshop of them all. But no chais have ever surpassed each and every one I enjoyed while briefly studying in India.

Though I was only in India for three weeks, it both cemented and ruinously altered my relationship with chai. I tasted the best and most authentic masala chai imaginable while traveling in this beautiful and colorful nation, a smooth and light tea with the perfect dose of sugar to balance out the seasoned warmth of the drink’s spicy ingredients. With my first sip, I instantly knew that upon returning to US soil, I would never again experience chai the same way, that a frothy Americanized latte of the same tea variety would be a lame but more accessible bet for getting my chai fix.

In India, masala chai is on offer wherever you go, regardless of whether you want it or not. At every home we visited, we were welcomed with perfect little cups of chai, about the volume of two shots each, and a spread of Nabisco Ritz crackers (an offering whose origins I still struggle to fully understand). Chai in India is as ubiquitous as Lipton tea bags are in discount hotel chains in the US, waiting in their cheap paper envelopes for whichever weary traveler enters next in need of a cup of comfort. Obviously, the Indians have a much more generous sense of hospitality than us Americans. Wherever you go in India, you can be sure to find creamy, hot, perfectly prepared chai on offer. And to my pleasure (but to my classmates’ puzzling dismay) the classic flavors of masala chai, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves, are repeated even in the sweets of India.

I am painfully aware that Indian masala chai and chai tea lattes are two very different things, the latter a somewhat bastardized, quick-fix version of the former. But there is something about the warmth and comfort evoked by the flavors of this milky and spicy drink that I find delightful and irresistible no matter where it is prepared. Despite the number of bad chai experiences I have had in my life, I continue to fill the void left in me by India by ordering chai lattes or making my own version of masala chai whenever I can. I am far from a chai snob – in an effort to capture all the positive associations and gustatory pleasures ignited by the perfect cup, I will sample and savor even the most awful of all chai concoctions.

With each delicious (or not so delicious) sip of chai I take when at home, I savor my memories of India. Drinking masala chai in India is not simply an act of nourishment but rather it is a complete and authentic experience. The power of that experience has obviously moved many people from outside the drink’s native country, bringing chai tea lattes to the Western world, our valiant attempt at recreating the pleasure of masala chai. It may be a different drink than its Indian antecedent, one associated with cold weather months and holiday treats rather than universal hospitality, but it sure comes pretty close to hitting the spot when done right.

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