Last updated on October 27, 2021
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 wifi 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.
What is Chai Tea?
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 this tea 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 and social 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.
Why Do Indians Drink Chai?
Chai tea in India is entrenched in the culture; it’s also a legacy of the British. Only once the British arrive did India begin the cultivation of tea through tea plantations now covering massive swaths of Assam, Darjeeling, and other areas of India—this took off in the 1830s with the arrival of the British East India Company. Before that point, the vast majority of the world’s tea was grown and exported from China and Britain was importing a lot of Chinese tea. Colonization had ramped up around the world by this point, and the newfound easy access to sugar (thanks to sugar plantations in the Americas) made tea a hot commodity for people at every level of society, not just the wealthy.
It’s in the roughly 1830s that we see the British bring over the first tea plants from China and plant them on large estates in the Assam region, alongside planting native-grown wild teas found in the mountains. They did this specifically to protect British interests and make their tea habit less reliant on good will and good trade with the Chinese, according to the BBC. For a good while, the bulk of this tea, which was farmed by indentured laborers (a fancy word for slaves), was exported. But eventually it made its way into every community in India, where strong black tea with spice, milk and sugar—masala chai—is a beloved drink available to order from chaiwallas on every street in India.
That doesn’t mean Indians weren’t drinking tea before the British arrived—herbal teas have long been a part of Ayurvedic medicine and spices and herbs have been used for centuries across India. It’s the commercial production and refinement of tea (not an easy process!), however, that really changed the way Indians consumed tea. Today, tea is a massive export for India, and those two tea regions? Assam and Darjeeling are not only regions of India covered in tea plantations, they are two famous types of tea only grown in India.
Why Drink Tea When It’s Hot Outside?
I asked myself why Indians drink masala 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 tea-drinking culture of 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, and in the early days when the plantations began producing, the tea farmers offered samples to Indians to get them hooked.
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; Indians clearly are on to something here.
And so, drinking masala chai is a part of the Indian culture at every level.
How to Enjoy a Chai With New Friends
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. OK, sure, you could say no. But culturally, you simply should accept each masala chai offered or risk offense. Trust me, I learned this the hard way. As I searched for a specific boutique recommended in my guidebook, I just couldn’t find it. 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. Still getting used to the pace of life in India, and I didn’t realize that a polite refusal is a bit of an insult. With a smile I offered him 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.
As I traveled across many areas of India over two months, the people were overwhelmingly kind and open. I never felt unsafe in accepting these bids for conversation, and usually I sat for a bit and slowed down the pace of my life. But in this situation with my tea refusal, 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 very social culture here. 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?”