Chai a Little Harder: If You’re Going to Claim Mastery, You Have to Gain Mastery

Updated: Mar 11, 2019

(Not actual chai but you get the point.)

As an Indian, I hear a lot of weird things come out of people’s mouths about India. I’ve been asked questions that range from embarrassingly misinformed (“You have cows as pets in India right?”) to inexcusably degrading (“You’re Indian? But you’re so cultured.”) Misconceptions about India are also glaringly obvious in the way elements of our culture have been expropriated and completely botched by non-Indians. Take chai. Chai – real chai – is goddamn beautiful. Chai is poetry.

Taste buds embraced, heart strings fiddled, senses tenderly awakened

Tea leaves borne from the sensual romance of earth and heaven…

…melded softly with warm spices, ginger, sugar; a swirl of color as beautiful as our skin…

…enveloping creamy, creamy milk and making it its own.

So every time I walk into any pretentious café in really any neighborhood of San Francisco, where the cappuccino is immaculately Italian and the pastries are fabulously French, am I crazy to hope that the chai will at least be identifiably Indian?

Maybe I am. Because ten minutes later I’m $6 lighter and one cinnamon-milk-emulsion-shit heavier, and I’m in disbelief. I can even live with the redundancy in the name – it’s 2018, "chai" means tea and "chai tea" means tea tea; we’ve been over this. But the revolting off-white hue, cringe-worthy lack of flavor, and unnecessary inundation of cinnamon? I cannot deal.

Should I cut the non-Indian-owned cafés in the city in the city some slack, and chalk their distasteful disaster of a drink down to a lack of executive ability? Maybe they actually did their research, respected the culture they were pulling from, and endeavoured to understand how chai works. Maybe, although the arts of brewing espresso and baking croissants are manageable, preparing chai is a whole different ball game. Maybe, despite their sincerest attempts, making the perfect chai is just an unattainable task, that there’s a chai-making gene only possessed by people from the Indian subcontinent? Maybe.

And yet, Japanese store Muji had no difficulty concocting an absolutely perfect chai, dehydrating it, and packaging it so it could take its mission of alighting and delighting everywhere it’s exported. What it boils down to is this: if you’re going to take over a recipe from a different culture and monetise it at a high premium because your store has Edison bulbs or whatever, you have to at least attempt to do it right. Muji showed us that this is not impossible. And if mastery over some elements of European cuisine warrants your time and effort, you can sure as hell look up the recipe for chai.

But chai is a small, delicious piece of a bigger issue. I’ve noticed that it seems incredibly difficult for Americans to understand the cultures they’ve incorporated into their lives - particularly non-Western ones. I find it hilarious when people practise yoga in figure-hugging nylon and call themselves yogis on Instagram, and when they wax poetic about peace and love while draped in cashmere and pashmina, and even when they joke about the “third-world squat” and praise the advancements of Western medicine in the same breath. You have to consume the bare minimum of the literature on yoga – enough to learn that loose-fitting natural fibers are the way to go if you want to connect with your body. You have to educate yourself on the violent conflicts in Kashmir, a primary source of these fine wools. You have to read about how Indians understood the health benefits of that squat ages ago – same as the value of zero, the healing powers of turmeric, and the art of procreation (we’re living proof of the last one – literally).

Look, I get it. In a world that’s globalising as quickly as ours, it is difficult to learn everything about every culture. And the internet throwing information our way all the time can be pretty overwhelming. But. The world has always been huge and life has always been ripe with learning. You can’t have opportunities to meet people from different cultures, buy their products, learn their art forms, and consume their media without at least trying to understand them. You can’t never open the news simply because it’s overwhelming. Now, I realize how idealistic this next part will sound, but I believe in it so strongly that I will say it anyway. Even if the world is in a negative place, so much light and love can come from people learning and listening and trying to make a positive change.

We aren’t born knowing everything, but we can try. We can talk to people from other cultures, follow international news sources, and read authors from different countries. We can try to understand the logic inherent in non-Western traditions before deeming them “strange” and “bizarre.” We can recognize the ridiculous double standard in the pronunciation of foreign words: you’re unsophisticated if you can’t correctly pronounce prix-fixe, but don’t worry about butchering namaste (nuh-MUSS-tay) and tandoori (tun-DOO-ree). 

This is not really about chai. But it’s also about chai. If you love your milky cinnamony tea-tinged concoction, by all means savor it. But please also venture out to any Indian restaurant and give the classic chai a fighting chance.

P.S. We also want our “turmeric lattes” back. You guys have made them weird.

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