A Little Tea… The History and Culture of Why Indians Drink Chai Tea!

An Indian man sips a chai tea on a break. Landing in Udaipur and staying for a week was a needed treat in these weeks and months of rapid travel and newness every morning when I face the day. I landed in Mumbai and startled at the lessons I had to learn about this complex country. Social norms here are different, expectations, interactions, cultures, and smells — it’s all light-years from my home, and even different from Southeast Asia, where I just left. And so, Udaipur was a relaxing stop and I’m glad that I took the week to learn the town and get used to India’s many peculiarities and quirks. I also had solid wi-fi at a nearby restaurant and so I spent my days in Udaipur doing client work in the mornings, then taking it slow on the sightseeing. And I drank chai, I drank a lot of chai.

Chai is a delightful and tasty treat. It’s a spicy tea cooked slowly so the flavors seep out and spill into the hot water. Then it’s milked and sugared and served boiling hot in a tiny glass. Everywhere I look, people sip chai. Locals drink it at least three times a day, and likely many, many more times than that. And chai consumption extends to foreigners too. Shop owners are quick to offer up a cup of steaming-hot, so-sweet, burn-your-mouth chai as I browse their wares. If you agree to a cup they send a chai wallah down the street to their preferred vendor, and in less than two minutes the chai wallah is back with a tea for everyone involved.

Because of this, I’ve had as many as seven cups of chai in a single day. It’s impossible to avoid and it’s a fun dynamic that laces every encounter.

If you head to a vendor to book train tickets, they are thrilled to help — but how about a chai before getting down to the basics?

Having breakfast? I think it needs a bit of chai.

Dinner on the docket — not without a bit of chai time.

Is it 95 degrees outside with a sweltering, humid heat?  Yep, still chai appropriate.

Chai tea in India is entrenched in the culture, it’s a legacy of the British. I asked myself why Indians drink chai, not only why it’s a part of the culture, but why sip a hot drink in such sweltering heat? Even once the British left India, the culture of drinking tea did not. Tea is the most popular drink across the subcontinent, not only because of the culture, but it’s affordable to even the poorest. Tea is grown in India, it’s a major export from regions like Darjeeling, so locals don’t pay import fees. It’s a family business for many as well. Recipes vary between vendors and locals find a chai wallah with the perfect mix of spices, ginger, milk, and sugar, and they become lifelong customers. This is a fascinating series of vignettes on chai in India. And what’s more, Indians drink chai because of the heat, not in spite of it. Drinking a piping hot chai — or any hot drink — triggers cooling mechanisms inside of your body. Receptors in your mouth tell your body that you’re hot and your body responds by upping the number of cool mechanisms — sweat among them — and it exceeds the effect of adding a hot liquid into your system. Plus, a billion people can’t be wrong, the Indians clearly are on to something here. And so, drinking chai is a part of the Indian culture at every level.

There’s no escaping the fact that chai has a ubiquitous presence in their lives, and there’s no escaping its presence for travelers. Here’s the kicker about the thing — you can’t refuse a chai. It’s just not done. Culturally, you simply have to accept each masala chai offered or risk offense. Trust me, I learned this the hard way. As I searched for a specific shop recommended in my guidebook, I just couldn’t find it though. And that’s when a friendly Indian man in his twenties helped out, he pointed the way and good-naturedly bid me a “good day.” The next day, as I wandered around I passed the same man again! He was pleased to cross paths again and he offered to take me across the road for a cup of chai and conversation. I’m still getting used to the pace of life here in India, and I didn’t realize that a polite refusal is an insult. With a smile and a lighthearted let’s do it next time we cross paths, his response was equally polite but a definitive no, he said, “Oh, but I will not offer again.”

And with that he walked away.

So far the people are overwhelmingly kind and open. I’ve never felt unsafe in accepting these bids for conversation, and usually I do sit for a bit and try to slow down the pace of my life. But in this situation, I just had somewhere I thought I needed to be. The truth is, I could have stopped for the chai. It’s new, this idea of stopping every activity to take a moment for a chat. But it’s fun too, it’s a neat quirk of the culture. And so, the next time I’m asked to chai, I’ll give the only acceptable answer: “sounds perfect, where should we take our tea?”

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4 Responses to A Little Tea… The History and Culture of Why Indians Drink Chai Tea!

  1. Bill April 14, 2009 at 12:24 am #

    “I will not offer again.”

    Heartbreaking!

  2. Niki April 1, 2009 at 6:05 pm #

    Man…I would be screwed with all that milky chai…I’d have to take a lot of lactose pills

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