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Ode to Chai

Oct/07/2023 / by Amita Mehta
Masala chai

How chai became a symbol for hospitality in South Asian culture and the secret to the tastiest drink at home

As spicy and delicious as my morning chai is each day, it’s the comfort of home, the memories it imbues, and the hospitality it conveys that makes it a mainstay in my life. There are other drinks that bring a sentimental moment or two—mango lassi, first and foremost—but nothing has the staying power and the continuity that chai holds. 

Once we settled in America after our expulsion from Uganda, Mom made her chai in a pot and simmered it with care and love. I drank chai every morning before I went to school, and it was a staple in our home, no matter how much my family struggled to gain a financial foothold—it was always a way to start off the day. So many mornings come to mind, long after my childhood, in which my mom invited me for tea and toast—her steaming, milky chai wafting through the kitchen. The beauty of chai is that it transcends socioeconomic boundaries, religion, and status—it is the truest symbol of hospitality and home. 

In honor of my love of chai, here’s a bit of history to understand its origins.

  • Chai culture developed out of British colonization
  • Tea consumption grew, and Indians began to take on the British preparation of tea—black with milk and sugar—adding their own twist with the addition of spices like cinnamon and cloves.
  • After India gained independence from the U.K. in 1947, chai became the country’s largest industry and was named the official drink of India.
  • One personal tip: In my humble opinion, chai goes best with a side of sweet Jalebi, crunchy Gathiya, or savory Chevda

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