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.

Tea Together Tuesday: Pumpkin-ish

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Today on Tea Together Tuesday, a delightful community tea prompt hosted by Tea with Jann and Tea is a Wish, the prompt is to share your favorite “pumpkin or pumpkin-spiced tea.” Well, “pumpkin spice” can be a pretty broad category, and even the PSL progeniteur, Starbucks, has pointed out that “pumpkin spice” merely refers to the spices in pumpkin products, not the pumpkin itself, so I am going to interpret that to include any tea that blends that particular combination of spices so characteristic of my favorite pumpkin treat: pumpkin pie.

And it just so happens that I’ve been enjoying a cup of a delicious spiced beverage each morning for the last week or so. And it even looks a bit like a pumpkin-y potion. Kind of.

Yella, by Ivy’s Tea Co., is a spiced turmeric blend that you can steep in water or milk (or milk alternative). I’ve been preparing it similarly to how I make a dairy-free masala chai, by steeping it in a mixture of coconut milk and water, simmering it on the stove for five minutes, and sweetening with jaggery or honey (although it is also delicious simply steeped in hot oat milk). The bright color is from the turmeric that is the base for the blend, but it also contains cinnamon, clove, ginger, and cardamom, among other ingredients.

It also happens to be blended by an herbalist who chose a lot of the blend for both the flavor and the anti-inflammatory benefits. While I’m not an herbalist or medical doctor, I find that when I wake up feeling creaky and a little delicate of tummy, I can make up a cup of that as my first breakfast and it soothes my stomach, warms my body, and nourishes me gently. As the mornings get cooler and cooler, it’s what I keep reaching for as my first cup of the day. So I decided to go and buy a whole bunch of it to keep in a lovely jar in my cupboard so it’s always accessible.

And I’m excited to not only be supporting a Black-woman-owned-and-run business, but also a local business. In fact, Ivy’s Tea Co., until recently, used honey from the same local apiary that I buy from as the base for their infused honeys. Perhaps when we’re able to see people in, well, person, I’ll have to get together to chat herbs and hot beverages with the owners. Until then, I’ll just content myself with their lovely tea blends.

So if you’re not a PSL person and still want that burst of spicy goodness and a cheery, pumpkin-y color to welcome the autumn, perhaps it’s time to give Ivy’s Tea Co. a try. And they’re dropping a new batch of their customized teacups on November 1st!

NB: Nothing to disclose. If you are interested in collaborating with me, please read my collaboration information for more details.

Tea Together Tuesday: Mug Shot

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Today on Tea Together Tuesday, a delightful community tea prompt hosted by Tea with Jann and Tea is a Wish, the prompt is to share your “mug shot” or your favorite tea in your favorite mug. Well, I don’t really play favorites with my tea, but my mugs are another thing. So this morning, I’m sharing the tea I drink most often in the mug that has been part of my tea journey for a long time.

Most mornings, especially since we started isolating at home in March, I make myself a pot of stovetop masala chai as my first breakfast. It’s light for my first-thing-in-the-morning stomach, but it provides a little hit of energy after a long fast since dinner and perhaps an early morning yoga practice. It’s warming and soothing, so even in summer, the mornings feel cool enough to want that bit of coziness. And after an invigorating yoga practice, when I’ve built some heat in my body, I don’t want to throw a bunch of cold water into my stomach right away.

So I generally rise with the sun (or before!) and do my yoga, perhaps a bit of meditation, maybe take some time to myself to check social media or read a book. And I make a pot of masala chai, which I often pour into what I call my Ithaca mug. I got it from a local potter’s stall at the farmers market when I was in college and first lived on my own in a one-bedroom apartment that teetered over the edge of Cascadilla Gorge. Back then, I made my morning coffee while looking out over the gorge in the morning and drank it out of this mug, or I would make a cup of peppermint tea in the evenings to sip after dinner from the mug.

To me, it symbolizes my first steps towards adulthood and self-sufficiency. It reminds me of meals that I planned and prepared myself, and of days in my solitary apartment, something I didn’t experience again until seven years later when I divorced my first husband. The Ithaca mug represents my time in Ithaca, where I started learning who I am and how to be comfortable alone with that person. I learned the value of solitude in my life. And I learned the value of a morning routine, no matter how small.

Of course, on a more utilitarian note, the mug is big. It can easily hold 12 oz. of tea with plenty of extra room if I carry it back to the bedroom to sit with Elliot while my spouse takes a shower. It’s a heavy, handmade mug, and it’s bottom-heavy, so it’s difficult to spill. I’ve dropped it more times than I remember and it has survived. And the top being slightly narrower than the base helps keep things hot longer.

Unlike most of my teaware, this mug gets washed in the dishwasher, or with soap. This is not a mug for tasting small amounts of a fine tea. It is a mug for a builder’s brew or a cup of strong coffee. It is a mug to comfort and sustain. So when I make my masala chai for it, I make it strong. I boil together Assam, my current favorite being from Calabash Tea and Tonic (of course if you like your tea and spices pre-blended, Calabash’s Love Potion #10 is also excellent when I’m not in the mood to prepare my own spices), lots of spices, some brown sugar, and some coconut milk, along with the water. I make sure it simmers for at least five minutes, usually more. It makes an eye-opening brew, and this mug is perfect for it.

What does your daily mug or cuppa look like?

NB: Nothing to declare. If you are interested in collaborating, please see my collaboration and contact information.

Tuesday Tasting: Tea Sparrow October 2019 Tea Box

NB: Tea Sparrow sent me their October box for free in exchange for posting a tasting. All thoughts are my own. Links are not affiliate links.

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This week, I’m sharing a bit of a different tasting. While I generally drink unflavored pure teas and often taste my teas gong fu style, I am a firm believer in evaluating teas on their own terms rather than trying to shoe-horn different teas into gongfucha. I was recently contacted by Tea Sparrow, a company that sells subscription tea boxes. Most of their teas are flavored, but everything is organic and natural and they use biodegradable packaging, so I was intrigued to try. Plus, I know plenty of my readers are not necessarily solely interested in drinking fussy pure teas and might appreciate knowing about some good flavored teas. They sent me their October box, which included two caffeine-free herbal teas, a flavored green tea, and a flavored black tea, so I thought I would do my tasting using their brewing parameters.

But of course, this isn’t a review; this is a tasting. So I still made sure to check aroma and look of the “leaf” at various points during the brewing. And I made a point to really roll the flavors around in my mouth, the way I would with any other tea. Let’s see how the October teas do with a full tea tasting.

Pina Colada Green Tea

I will admit, when I saw this tea, my first thought was

Anyone who reads this blog knows that not only am I not usually a fan of flavored teas, but “dessert-y” type flavors like this are at the bottom of my list of likes (top of my list of dislikes?). But this is a tasting, not a review, so here we go.

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Right off, I could smell the coconut through the package, and it had an almost sunscreen-y aroma, but as soon as I opened it and poured it out into a warmed teapot, the scent became this rich, very true coconut aroma. It’s actually a very warm scent, which is odd for what I thought would be a summery tea. The dry green tea is medium olive-ish green and has moderately small, straight and flat leaves. It almost looks like a Japanese green tea (or a Chinese green processed like a Japanese tea?). There are also pieces of sugared pineapple and flakes of toasted coconut. I tasted one of the pineapple pieces and it’s sweet and has taken on the coconut flavor.

I first steeped this tea using one tablespoon, which was 4.8g, in a 250-ml glass teapot with 180 F water for two minutes, as per the instructions. The wet leaf had an almost savory aroma and the liquor was pale gold with a light coconut aroma. The dominant flavor was green tea, with noticeable umami and a lightly astringent finish. The coconut was an undertone to the flavor, with no noticeable sweetness and a surprisingly warm flavor.

Out of curiosity, I took the same leaves and cold-brewed them for three hours. The cold-brewed liquor was buttery and fragrant with a more pronounced fruity flavor.

Organic Vanilla Mint Rooibos

They are not kidding when they say this tea is “peppermint forward.” Again, I could smell the peppermint through the package. The dry leaf is an obvious blend of rooibos and dried peppermint leaf. The dry leaf smells strongly of peppermint, but the addition of vanilla and rooibos adds a rich depth that reminded me of a York peppermint patty. In my notes, I put a parenthetical that it “clears your sinuses.”

I used one tablespoon, which was 4.4g, in a 12-oz. mug with boiling water for five minutes. The liquor is a deep reddish brown and has a distinct aroma of each individual component, rather than blasting your sinuses with menthol like the wet and dry leaf. Peppermint is still the strongest flavor and it is a menthol-y peppermint, not a green peppermint flavor. Rooibos is the second most prominent with a rich woody flavor and the vanilla is subtle and reads as chocolate to my tastebuds, without that weird artificial vanilla flavor that happens with vanilla-flavored teas.

Organic Crimson Currants

This was the first tea I tried from the box, the day it came, as my evening cup. I like to unwind with a warm beverage after I put Elliot to bed, and I get tired of lavender-chamomile. This is a blend of dried fruit, rosehips (which are also a fruit), rooibos, and lemongrass. You can see all the components in the dry “leaf.”

I steeped one tablespoon, which was 6.5g, in 250 ml of boiling water for five minutes. The liquor is a deep crimson color and has an almost thick look to it as it pours. It has the same fruity aroma as the dry leaf. I made a note that it looks like stage blood (corn syrup and red food coloring)! The first flavor that hits you is tart, probably from the rosehips and hibiscus. It’s a thicker tartness than hibiscus usually gives, but without the sickly, almost tomato-y flavor I sometimes get from rosehips. It has a syrupy mouthfeel but no actual sweet favor. There is a little bit of lemon-candy flavor from the lemongrass. The berries are very subtle and I didn’t taste any rooibos from this at all. My final note is that “this tea is what ‘Red Zinger’ wants to be.”

Organic Masala Chai

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This, I tasted both plain and with milk and honey, since masala chai is actually a drink made with tea, not just a tea, so the traditional drink involves dairy and sweetener. The dry leaf shows a lot of whole spices like clove and cardamom among the very typical-looking Indian tea leaves. I can definitely smell the cinnamon flavoring, as it had strong, sweet cinnamon scent, like Ceylon cinnamon, but the ginger is also present as a base note to the dry leaf aroma.

To start off, I brewed one tablespoon, which was 5.9g, in 250 ml of boiling water for five minutes. The liquor “smells like Christmas,” according to my notes. There is a strong cinnamon aroma. Interestingly enough, the flavor is not overly cinnamon-y. The ginger comes through nicely and I get a little of the cardamom. It has a spicy finish, but the dominant flavor is from the Assam, with a big malt flavor, currant notes, and not too much tannin.

Adding honey to it brought out the cinnamon, and milk brings out an almost chocolatey quality. I also re-steeped this with boiling water for five minutes, giving it a little stir, and found that the ginger and cardamom were more pronounced, even when I added honey.

So there are my tastings of the four teas that came in the Tea Sparrow October 2019 box. And if you like flavored teas and are interested in trying a box, or buying any of these teas on their web store, you can use the code “TeaLeavesandTweed” on their site for a 20% discount on your first order or your first month of the subscription.