Searching for a real cup of chai, far beyond the Starbucks

Searching for a real cup of chai, far beyond the Starbucks

Photo: A.L. Canterbury/Getty Images
Photo: A.L. Canterbury/Getty Images

Every time I order chai somewhere new, I text my dad. “Is it real?” is how he responds. Real chai, to my family, means something that closely resembles masala chai, a daily staple in my father’s motherland of India, where chaiwalas line the streets, spooning out steaming, aromatic tea turned light brown by a generous amount of milk. My father grew up in Haathia, a small rural village in Uttar Pradesh. He tells me there were no roadside chaiwalas when he grew up, because there were no real roads in the remote village. People made tea at home. Now, he explains, Haathia has a road. He imagines chaiwalas there today, guarding their large metal pots of boiling tea, calling out to potential customers.

I wouldn’t know that personally; I’ve never been to Haathia. In fact, despite having half of my father’s blood, I’ve never been to India. The first time I saw a chaiwala was when I was 16 years old, when I saw the film Slumdog Millionaire in a movie theater in the Virginia suburbs. I hold on to my Indian culture through visits to my father’s parents, where I listen to their stories and learn to cook from my grandmother. I hold on to my Indian culture through homemade paneer, Bollywood, and steaming cups of masala chai.

Photo: Insights/UIG via Getty Images

While “chai” has come to mean spiced black tea in the Western world, the word on its own means “tea,” plain and simple, in Hindi and most other Indian languages. As with many facets of Indian life, the practice of drinking tea is now inextricable from the history of British colonialism. In the late 1800s, the British East India Company established large tea plantations across the Assam region in an attempt to break China’s monopoly in the global tea market. In the early 20th century, Britain’s Indian Tea Association launched a widespread marketing campaign to bolster black tea consumption within the subcontinent, encouraging factories to provide their workers with tea and tea breaks. The Indian Tea Association promoted tea served the English way, with just a little milk and sugar, which maximized tea leaves sales by not diluting the mixture. But independent vendors eventually started bringing their own tastes to the mass-produced black tea.

In truth, there is no one way to make a cup of masala chai. Like the stories my father told of his own childhood, masala chai recipes have an oral tradition that’s passed down through generations. Some guard their family chai recipes, never revealing the exact combination of spices that makes theirs the best, teasing a secret ingredient. My grandmother’s own method of preparing tea—which we call Chachi tea—is deceptively simple, and yet I struggle to make it taste exactly as sweet and milky as hers, to get mine to turn that odd but comforting pale pink color she presents us by the mugful when we’re over for dinner. But generally, masala chai starts with a black tea base, boiled with milk, sugar, and a combination of warming spices. Ginger and cardamom pods are the only essential spices to make it masala chai. But other spices such as cinnamon, star anise, fennel seeds, nutmeg, cloves, peppercorn, and saffron can be added, varying by region and personal preference.

For my dad and me, the most important part of that equation is boiling everything together. In our books, it can’t be deemed real chai if you add milk or sugar after the fact. Here’s where restaurants often fail us. The boiling-with-milk method seems like an extra step that even the best Indian restaurants in the U.S. skip.

We have another rule: Don’t call it chai tea. That phrase—which literally means “tea tea,” as any of your South Asian friends will inform you—has become pervasive in the Western world thanks to corporations like Starbucks, which introduced its own take on masala chai in the ’90s, stripping the name of all its context. Starbucks’ chai tea latte (and, of course, pumpkin spice latte) have become synonymous with the autumnal activities of a certain, upper-middle class subset, offering a taste that’s heavy on the sweet, light on the spice—exactly like something that comes in powdered form from a box. It’s completely divorced from its cultural origins and lacks the gentle balance between sweet and spicy that makes the drink appealing in the first place. There’s too much going on, the flavors clashing, leaving a sticky feeling in your mouth. And God bless them, they sell a ton of it. But compared to even my grandmother’s very rudimentary tea recipe, it is, quite frankly, bullshit.

Confession time: I drink that bullshit. Here I am, writing about what constitutes masala chai authenticity (itself a loaded word) while feeling a bit disingenuous because no less than a week ago, I sipped on a Starbucks chai latte while walking through Prospect Park. My dad, from once-roadless Haathia, drinks them, too. My sister often has a Starbucks chai in hand while studying. That’s how I got through my undergrad days, too. It’s certainly not what I want when I crave masala chai. It’s just syrupy warmth, a quick and easy guilty pleasure that leaves my mouth feeling sticky, reminding me I’m drinking something fake. My culture—from concentrate. The West has undoubtedly misappropriated masala chai in the form of these dense drinks, but I see them as separate entities entirely. A chai latte from Starbucks is perfectly fine, but it will never evoke that specific and complicated feeling “real” chai brews within me.

In the past four years, I’ve lived in Ann Arbor, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Brooklyn. For every city, I have an organized map in my head of where to get the best chai, the restaurants that boil their tea with milk and spices, and the cafes with the “realest” tasting chai lattes. My dad, sister, and I compare notes on the chai we find, always chasing that perfect cup. The Western world’s chai lattes, we’ve learned, are far too heavy-handed with the cinnamon. Sprinkling extra cinnamon on top of milk foam may look pretty, but it destroys the delicate flavor balance.

We compare notes on our own chai recipes, too, all three of us realizing that the best way to find masala chai that’s familiar, comforting, real, is to make it ourselves. I’m heavier on the ginger, preferring spice to sweetness. Sometimes I’ll add turmeric if I’m in any kind of pain. My sister often makes the simplest version, with just ginger and cardamom. She says anise is nice sometimes, but cautions that a little goes a long way. She has experimented with brown sugar over white, which leads to a less sweet, more molasses-heavy chai with a hint of bitterness. My dad is less precise with his measurements. He likes to boil his extra long so that a gooey milk film forms on top—something that most would find unappealing. We all have stories of accidentally letting our mixture boil over. On a particularly bad day, my sister let her pot boil over three times when trying to make chai.

Sharing our stories with each other, our tricks and our secrets, we’re creating the chai recipes that we’ll pass down to our own subsequent generations. What we call “real chai” means a cup of spiced tea that reminds us of home—of each other. Real chai tastes and feels like that invisible thread that connects me to the homeland I’ve yet to see. Masala chai’s history is steeped in personal stories, in rich tradition and culture. Every cup holds those stories.

Content continues below