The immediacy of moment-to-moment transactions is intense, but so is an intimate connection with the ancient past.
Shop keepers are expected to offer it while you shop. Many shops will sit you down for tea and go into a sales presentation while you drink it.
Even the smallest and seemingly insignificant parts of life revolve around this beverage.
At this time in my life, I was intent on learning to play tablas, and-- after we all drank tea-- I took a lesson from this harmonium player.
Drinking tea together is a prelude to activity. Like the toast, it is a ceremony that establishes mutual good will for whatever interaction will follow.
In the mid 1600s during construction of the Taj Mahal, the tea trade was dominated by China. India wouldn't become a source of tea until the East India Tea Company encountered difficulties with Chinese tea trade. In the 1830s Britain began actively planning tea production in India, and full tea plantations were up and running by the 1880s.
1859- Britain imported 31K tons of Chinese tea
But 40 years later, things had changed.
1899- Britain imported 7K tons of Chinese tea
Britain imported 99K tons of Indian tea
But the India Tea Association identified what they considered to be a problem. Domestic tea drinkers had begun adding more milk and sugar than recommended, and they also began adding spices. The ITA took issue because people used less tea leaves and more spices, minimizing the tea consumption. One tea campaigner wrote back to the India Tea Association, "Steps are now being taken to have this remedied. It is in the Cawnpore Mill area that we have found this so-called spiced tea... and we are now employing our own hawkers in that district who sell well-made liquid tea in direct competition to the unsavoury and badly prepared decoction known as 'spiced tea.'" (Collingham 2006:197)
Flavoring milk-based drinks with spices has been a part of Indian cuisine for centuries. British tea drinkers viewed spiced tea as an adulteration of tea, but domestic producers of masala chai saw it simply as adding tea to a spiced milky beverage that they already consumed.
Tea in India is inextricably linked with the baggage of exploitation and colonialism. Masala chai is an important beverage that India used to maintain a type of autonomy during the period of British exploitation. When masala chai became popular, it functioned as a subtle form of domestic passive resistance against British domination. Masala chai was a way of absorbing an element of British culture that was practically being forced down their throats, while changing it enough to assert a feeling of personal ownership over the drink.
When a beverage is delicious, affordable, and has popular momentum, there is almost no stopping it. Now, a century later, you can buy a cup of masala chai at any corner cafe. Though 'chai' means 'tea,' and 'masala' means 'spice mix,' the word 'chai' has come to take a new global vernacular meaning of 'spiced tea.'
The milk you use is pretty important, too. Camel milk and buffalo milk both came highly recommended.
We had gone out into the night down a tiny alley and found some guys cooking hot milk in what looked like a wok. They stirred the milk in the wok over a fire until it boiled, then poured the contents into cups and handed them out. A milk-skin cheese formed on top of your drink, and we ate it.
I took a sip-- it had been sweetened slightly, it was rich and warm. Milk like this-- wow. It was a long way from the plastic-like pasteurized milk I grew up on.
In many regions, masala chai is usually made with buffalo milk, but this is difficult to find in the US.
Did they use buffalo milk? Did they use... camel milk? Was it the sugar or the spice blend? I'll never know what made that tea so mind-searingly delicious, but I will always remember that moment. I make masala chai every couple of weeks or so, trying to get back to that place... and it's hit or miss. Sometimes I nail it just right-- but if you let the leaves steep too long you will quickly end up with a tannin, bitter brew. Steep them not long enough and your tea will be watery.
The spices are fun to play around with too. Sometimes I go crazy and put in tons of cardamon. Sometimes I go heavy on the cinnamon. But a life without spice? Chai without cardamom? It's unfathomable.
Collingham, Lizzie. (2006). "Chai: The Great Tea Campaign." Curry: A Tale of Cooks & Conquerors. pp 187-214. New York: Oxford University Press.
Standage, Tom. (2005) A History of the World in 6 Glasses. New York: Walker. (p211-220)