Difficult History: Chai and Protest

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It’s been a stressful week, so while I’m about to talk politics (albeit, 100-year-old politics), I’m going to do it with what many of us consider to be a singularly comforting beverage: masala chai. Fair warning — while I did learn how to make masala chai from my Indian housemate, I am still a white lady talking about how tea fit into Indian politics. I’m largely drawing my distilled history from A Thirst for Empire, which I’ve used for other “Difficult History” posts, though I did look at a few other sources, which I’ll mention as they come up.

Alright. So, my ultimate premise is that masala chai, as we know it today, was originally a kind of culinary protest. The chaiwallahs who made it probably didn’t think about it that way, but the way that masala chai is made today, by boiling tea, spices, milk, sugar, and water together, stems from a practice of frugality which went in direct opposition to the purpose of introducing tea into widespread use in India in the late 19th and early 20th century.

You see, despite the fact that native varieties of Camellia sinensis were found in the Indian subcontinent, and eventually became the main stock from which commodity Indian tea was grown, tea was not widely consumed in India, traditionally. Accounts of “the history of chai” like to make the connection between modern masala chai and an ancient Ayurvedic drink, but in reality, that drink was primarily made from the spices that we associate with masala chai today, and did not include milk or tea leaves. But when the British production of tea in India began to reach large-scale economic viability, the primarily native-Indian workforce in factories and fields were seen as a potential new market.

Tea stalls were set up to sell tea to workers and Indian tea culture started to follow British tea culture — i.e., with lots of milk and sugar. But the sellers, called chaiwallahs, had little tricks to both stretch their tea leaves and appeal to the native Indian palate. They boiled the leaves, allowing them to get a stronger brew out of less leaf, or even using previously-steeped leaves, to save money on the expensive tea. The addition of spices and sugar also added flavor to the beverage without using the more expensive ingredient.

But the introduction of tea into the Indian diet was meant as a way to earn more money for the tea companies (similarly to how Henry Ford pushed for weekends off work so workers could become consumers and increase company profits), as well as a way to “civilize” them in the British fashion. So organizations, like the Indian Tea Association (ITA), which was founded in the late 19th century to protect the interests of colonizer tea plantation owners, started pushing for rules about “purity” of the tea sold by chaiwallahs, playing on the fears of adulturation that were common at the time. Excessive sugar and spices were considered “adulturants” and only allowed in approved quantities, or not at all.

After World War I, when British tea consumption faltered, there was more of a push to both encourage the consumption of “Empire-Grown Tea” in the British Isles (which led to the xenophobic advertising I mentioned in my post about the feminization of tea in Britain), as well as in India. But this time, the native Indians were organizing under the leadership of Mohandas Gandhi to oppose British rule, and were thinking negatively about how the British commodities, like sugar, bread, and tea, had worked their way into Indian life. Gandhi himself wrote in his book The Key to Health that the tannins in tea were unhealthy and praised tea as only being healthful in the milk and sugar it contained.

So perhaps Gandhi would have smiled upon the current trend of using other bases besides tea in beverages called “chai” like turmeric chai or rooibos chai. But the main takeaway is that the chaiwallahs, while they probably did not think of their act as a protest, birthed a drink that showed how adding back Indian flavor into a drink pushed upon them by their colonizers could create not only a delicious beverage, but one that largely spat in the eye of the same organization that tried to capitalize on them by using a method that conserved as much of that expensive tea as possible.

Similarly to yoga, which was codified in its modern incarnation as a way to encourage native Indian strength and nationalism, only to be appropriated and watered down into white popular culture, so too has chai been removed from its context. While a barista can make a perfectly drinkable beverage from steamed milk and a “chai” concentrate without ever having to look at a tea leaf or a ginger rhizome, the real masala chai is boiled, pulled, and served up with a healthy does of resistance.

For anyone who is curious, my chai is made with ginger, cardamom, black peppercorns, cinnamon, Assam tea from Calabash Tea and Tonic, jaggery, water, and coconut milk. The cup is from Ivy’s Tea Co.

NB: Nothing to disclose. If you are interested in collaborating with me, please read my collaboration information for more details, but you should know that if you want to sponsor a “Difficult History” post, the bar will be high.

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