Opinion | How tea became 'chai'
Tracing the story of the robust masala chai that evolved from proper British pot tea
I assumed chai was part of Indian cuisine. That it had always been there. Like dal and rice, "says Philip Lutgendorf, chai researcher, Hindi scholar and cultural historian.
So had I. Until recently, I had imagined chai, that sweet, milky, boiled concoction, was part of our traditional kitchens, handed down like a well-loved legend. That its beginnings actually date back to the 20th century in most of India is fascinating, for it has become integral to our cultural and culinary consciousness in an extraordinarily short time.
History records how Indian consumers were introduced to tea, with a railway campaign, free samples, the invention of the CTC (crush, tear, curl) machine, the door-to-door propaganda. The CTC machine in particular had a significant impact on both costs and volumes. By offering more cuppage, it made CTC tea an attractive option for vendors and roadside tea makers.
But this was about tea, not how about chai came to be.
Chai’s story led me to Lutgendorf, recently retired as professor of Hindi and modern Indian studies at the University of Iowa, who has done research on how Indians became habituated to chai. He first visited India in 1971, returning often, researching and authoring books related to the Ramayan. Chai, which he tasted on his first day here, was a beverage he grew to love but also became curious about. It led to an year-long Fulbright-Hays fellowship in 2010 to research chai’s cultural history.
In an essay, Making Tea In India: Chai, Capitalism, Culture (Thesis Eleven, 2012), he writes about the process by which tea drinking was popularized. Unable to trace any one creator of the footpathki chai, however, he pays homage to this “unknown chai-wala/wali" as an example of classic Indian jugaad.
For, efforts by the British to teach people the “correct way" to make tea didn’t have the expected outcome. Perhaps the inventor of chai found “pot tea" too fussy and achieved similar results by just putting all the ingredients into one pan and boiling them well. To me, this act of rebellious creativity underlines chai’s cult status.
Interestingly, neither tea nor chai replaced anything we were drinking; they were entirely new. Chai became synonymous with the sweet, milky tea that’s boiled, not steeped. It became one more variation of how tea is made and enjoyed.
Both tea and chai created social spaces, like the “tea cabins" in Kolkata and the “Irani cafes" in Mumbai. These institutions may have receded into the past but there are addas in Kolkata, and vendors and pavement stalls around the country, that continue to make chai available and accessible—a fixture in our lives.
Prof. Lutgendorf’s book, based on extensive research, is under way. It may be difficult to believe but this will be the first time we will hear the story of chai—and its transformation into a cultural motif—in its entirety.
Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry.