January 05, 2021

Why We Need to Stop Saying "Chai Tea"

By Sarah Adams

Why we need to stop saying "Chai Tea"

I was staying at a friends' house outside Delhi a few years back. They were excited about the fact that I had business making chai in the US, and we talked about it often. It was a topic dear to their heart, since chai is such an important part of their daily life. They made me their own chai, which was absolutely delicious. Then they took me aside and asked, with some humor in their eyes, "But why do Americans call it chai tea?"
It was a valid question. 

For those of us chai lovers who grew up in the US, outside of Indian culture, we learned to call this drink "chai tea", or even a "chai tea latte". The term was coined at coffeehouses, where it has been a menu staple since the 1990s.

But in the early days of my personal chai obsession, I learned that chai actually means tea in Hindi, and many other languages spoken throughout India and Pakistan. So saying "chai tea" is pretty redundant. It actually just means "tea...tea". It (kinda?) made sense at the time, it was a way of explaining this drink to a new audience, building the English translation directly into the name.

The specific term for the type of chai we're talking about is Masala Chai (spice tea). Often this is shorthanded to just plain "chai", and has endless recipe variations, depending on regional tendencies and familial traditions.

I've been making chai for a living for 16 years, and I never used to correct folks who order a "chai tea" at my farmers' market booth. I'm not of Indian descent, so I don't have the deep-rooted cultural experience with chai that folks of the Indian diaspora had, so I felt like it wasn't my place, like I was overstepping my bounds as an outsider. I also knew that my customers are respectful, lovely people who absolutely meant well and thought it was the correct term.

But I had a conversation with a Punjabi-American chai friend recently, who said she definitely corrects anyone who calls chai by this improper name. It hit me then that I have a responsibility to pass the knowledge on to my customers. I realized that if I'm teaching folks how brew and enjoy chai, I definitely need to teach people the right way to say it.

I'm still (always) learning about chai and the traditions that surround it, but I want to pass on what I learn.

So for now, dear chai friends, in order to pay respect (in a small but important way) to the culture that created this wonderful drink that we love- let's call it by its proper name. Chai. Or better yet- Masala Chai! 

Love, Sarah
PS-Thanks for listening to my thoughts on this topic, SO much to talk about here, but I tried to keep it simple, especially since I'm better at making chai than writing;)

For more on this topic, directly from folks of the South Asian diaspora, check out these articles:

NYC's Kolkata Chai Co. Wants to Reclaim Chai's Narrative

Why You Should Never Use The Phrase "Chai Tea"