A photo story following the origins of tea drinking on the Indian subcontinent and the contributions of chai to forming a cultural community in college.
Written by Sushmita Udoshi
Edited by Morgan Jenkins
The British did not leave the Indian subcontinent without leaving scars that still bleed today, but if there is one good thing at all that came out of years of colonization, it's tea. Chai to be exact, and not the latte we all sometimes enjoy at coffee shops. The origins of tea drinking in India began with the country's proximity to China and the British tendency to just take things without anyone's permission. So there it began, with the British literally smuggling tea plants out of China and into India. Some sunshine, water, and forced labor later, the areas of Darjeeling and Assam became the center of tea growth in India. The robust production of sugar also helped tea become popular, while 4000 years of Ayurvedic tea drinking gave birth to the best cup of tea I could ever ask for - masala chai.
Masala chai is a combination of spices: cardamon, nutmeg, cinnamon, star anise, black pepper, ginger etc. - based on the maker's preference really - with a black tea. This specific type of chai was likely popularized by the fact that the production and transport of tea was not done very carefully early on, yielding low quality leaves and obscuring the taste. The addition of spices uplifted the sad cup of tea, as most spices tend to do.
Chai will forever feel like home to me. My first sip of chai must have been when I was around 3 years old. My grandfather would come home from work and my grandmother would set up the table for tea and snacks. This was my first and earliest memory of learning a love language.
Chai is usually accompanied by a wide variety of snacks, like cake rusk or biscuits, which can be dipped into the tea and make it taste sweeter. The feeling of a biscuit dropping to the bottom of the cup is so irritating, but also so nostalgic. Classically spicy Indian snacks like khara mandakki add a punch of heat to contrast. Everything about tea time is great, but it's the memories attached to chai that never fail to take me back whenever I have a sip.
For many South Asian students, creating a home away from home is an integral part of keeping our culture alive. I decorate my room with pieces from back home and I'm always finding new Indian art to put on my walls. I find myself forgetting words of my home language and missing foods that I could never recreate well enough. Chai, however, has been the easiest connection to home. There's something about making my friends a cup of adrak (ginger) chai, even if it turns out too strong or tastes weird because of popular milk substitutes. The process of trying to create an okay cup of tea is just as loving as when my grandmother makes me the perfect cup.
If you're ever missing a cup of chai, you know who to come to. I can't promise it will be perfect but there's nothing a biscuit can't fix!