I started drinking tea at a very young age. I assumed every kid did, just as they drank their milk. But, I was wrong. I realized this was not the norm during one of my first sleepovers at a friend’s house. We were not offered any tea in the morning, only juice or milk. Her parent’s didn’t even drink tea – they drank only coffee and it wasn’t for children! Confused, I went home with a lot of questions: Why didn’t they drink tea? What was coffee? Why couldn’t I drink coffee? You mean, they don’t have tea in the afternoon, either?
I had been drinking a cup of tea with my parents as far back as I can remember, and not just once a day, but twice!
And so, over a cup of tea (of course), my mom explained to me about traditions and how in India (their birthplace), enjoying a cup of tea in the morning and late afternoon was customary. The kind of tea we drank was called chai, I recall her saying to me. The Hindu word ‘chai’ actually just means ‘tea.’ Therefore, those who ask for a ‘chai tea’ are really asking for “tea tea.” The term ‘chai tea’ to those who don’t know the true meaning of the word ‘chai’ equates to requesting a tea made in the traditional Indian style – loose black tea; milk; clove; cardamom; and, other spices according to your taste buds.
But my mother told me that it was more than all that. Drinking chai was special. Although there wasn’t any one thing she could pinpoint which made it a little more special than enjoying a regular tea or coffee, she didn’t have to because over the years I saw what made it stand out.
When I started drinking chai, cups with saucers were still being used. And those saucers made a big difference in the way I began enjoying my tea. I didn’t know, but it was common practice to tilt your tea cup just enough for your saucer to hold a few drinks worth. Doing this, allowed for the tea to cool down faster and forced you to drink the tea slower than if you were drinking it straight from the cup (unless you wanted it all over you!). I thought my mom showed me how to do something no one else knew how, just us. Though I know differently now, the memories of believing my mother and I had a secret way of drinking our chai together will always stand out.
Over the years, my dad took over the tea-making at my parent’s house. Day in, day out, I have watched him boil the water, add the milk, bring it to a rolling boil, and then quickly take it down to a simmer. He then catches the loose tea with a strainer and immediately pours all the tea into a thermos which will keep it hot for hours. Every day I could watch him do this, yet, when I go home and try to do it myself, it never tastes as good. And now that I really think about it, the flavor isn’t really that off when I make it, it’s just that dad’s chai is better because it’s made by him. He even makes it ahead of time, thinking that I will probably want some. And I do. Always. We drink it slowly. Sometimes we talk and others times we sit quietly. But we enjoy it together. Definitely a special chai moment.
Watching and drinking tea with both my parents taught me how to slow down and savor each individual flavor, which rolls smoothly over your tongue. It is to be served piping hot, with the steam hovering over the top of the cup. And as you raise the tea cup to your lips, your eyes slowly close, as your taste buds anticipate that first sip. Though you know it’s too soon, you can’t stop yourself. There’s too much magic in that cup of chai.
We all know that too much of anything can never be good. And so it has become the same with ‘chai tea.’ Every coffee shop, restaurant, even convenient stores serve their own versions of ‘chai tea’. Some companies offer a premade mix and other coffee houses do some form of water/milk combination and then doctor it up according to taste. My curiosity has me venturing out and trying the new concoctions of this age-old Indian tea. Though I haven’t found one that I consider a true ‘chai’, I have found many which I truly enjoy, namely one Vanilla Chai Tea Latte. In fact, to this day, I have people telling me that they are hooked on that drink ever since I turned them on to it.
And though I’m happy that they have found a hot tea beverage closely resembling chai, I think their experience drinking it isn’t as special as mine have been. Simply because for me, it’s tradition, culture, family, acknowledging and allowing myself to slow down and savor that first sip, whether over conversation or lost in thought. It’s the memories.
This weekend, while out of town, I will get to order a version of my chai and take it outside in the early morning hours and watch the sun rise while sitting on one of the best porches in Indiana: the French Lick Resort and Spa Hotel. And, though I won’t be drinking my dad’s homemade chai, I will be savoring my cup of tea, either over quiet conversation or lost in thought, all the while making new memories.
I hope you make your next cup of chai just as good and meaningful.