It’s More Than Just Tea
EVERY DAY, millions of Indians are woken up with a cup of chai—a thick milky type of tea with lots of added spices. It’s the drink of choice for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
You won’t find real chai at Starbucks or Costa. The best chai is said to be made by an Indian chaiwallah, or tea maker. Fortunately for Indians, chaiwallahs aren’t hard to come by. They can be found working tirelessly on almost any street corner, serving at a rapid pace, filling up small cups, tossing ingredients around and adding them to the brew. The best chaiwallahs add crushed ginger while seamlessly pouring out four cups with their free hand. Add some cardamom pods right at the end and there you go: a small shot of bright orange chai.
Today chai is almost required at any sort of event, and has become a simple fact of Indian life. But the history of chai is interwoven with stories of political dissent, espionage, colonial oppression, and modern political tactics.
The Greatest Heist You Never Heard Of
The story of how tea came to India starts in the early 1800s. During this period China held a monopoly over tea production and Europeans began to crave the “exotic” drink. Seeing the growing demand in Europe, the British East India Trading Company wanted to enter the tea market, but were having difficulties securing trades. With China holding a monopoly over the product and Britain having little to offer in return, the price of tea was on the rise.
In order to decrease this economic gap, the British began smuggling opium (made in West India) into China, bypassing the Chinese Empire and selling opium to small traders to gain revenue for tea. This ploy outraged Chinese rulers and eventually led to the famous Opium Wars of the 1800s. With this plan proving both expensive and dangerous, the British traders needed another idea.
Luckily for the British, a wild long-leafed variety of Camellia sinesis (tea plants) were discovered in Assam, now a state in Northern India. This discovery opened the idea that mass cultivation in India was possible. The goal was simple: use India’s vast landscape and resources to mass produce tea for Europeans.
With wild Assamese tea found in India, the British needed to develop cultivation and production techniques; they still wanted Chinese tea plants and now knew cultivation was a possibility. This plan eventually led to one of the greatest industrial espionage stories in modern history. Richard Fortune, a Scottish botanist and scientist, was hired to steal tea seeds, saplings and information from inner China. In Indiana Jones-like fashion, using a disguise consisting of a fake hairpiece and Mandarin garb, Fortune and his local servant Wang infiltrated Chinese tea houses across the country.
Fortune and Wang underwent long treks through mountainous China to verify tea production methods and search for different varieties of tea. They encountered pirates and suspicious tea harvesters, and got lost several times during their travels.
Not only did Fortune and Wang manage to bring back thousands of seeds and samplings using glass bottles—Fortune broke the Chinese monopoly on tea production and brought tea to the British Empire, and consequently India.
It Wasn’t Chai Yet
Following the Chinese tea heist, the British Colonizers turned India into a major tea producer for Europe, with large plantations spanning across the country. Most of the tea was dispatched to Britain, but some stayed in India, and the drink spread among the local population. The British wanted to bolster the tea economy by promoting the product within India. At first Indians were averse to this new, “foreign” drink. To tackle this issue, the Indian Tea Association (formed by the British) began encouraging factories to offer tea breaks every day. Tea sachets with instructions in Hindi were distributed to villages and small towns to fuel consumption.
Around the early 1900s chaiwallahs began popping up on every street corner and at every railway station. These street vendors began experimenting with traditional British-style tea by using larger proportions of milk and sugar and adding various new spices. Cardamom and ground ginger were the two staple additions, but more adventurous tea vendors began adding black peppercorns and cinnamon sticks. These added spices were drawn from a more traditional drink known as kadha or kahra. This drink was used to treat various ailments such as sore throats and colds, but became popular because of its desirable, spicy flavor.
The thick spicy tea formed through these historical and cultural exchanges is what we call chai today.
“A lawyer, plumber, and electrician all sit around their favorite spot ordering tea at 5 rupees.”
India’s Most Political Drink of Choice
After Indian independence in the late 1940s, the famed beverage was still on every street corner, creating hotspots for conservation. Anyone and everyone drank chai together. Political interactions were and still are commonplace at tea stalls. Customers often sit around on worn stools discussing various happenings. “I associate chai with discussion in general and yes, politics does play a large role,” says Rishabh Kishore, a student at University of Wisconsin- Madison in the United States, remembering interactions from various tea stalls in his hometown, Hyderabad.
The universality and accessibility of chai stalls means that people from different classes interact with each other over a cup of tea. A lawyer, plumber, and electrician all sit around their favorite spot ordering tea at 5 rupees.* “Chai stalls are interesting places in general. They’re so common and standardized, but they are still loved for what they are and not anything more. These chai stalls generally have the best chai, but I think every Indian would be biased to the chai made in their own homes,” added Kishore.
The current Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, was ironically enough a chaiwallah back in his youth. A chaiwallah can be compared to a New York City taxi driver—someone who sees the city and its inhabitants day in and day out. Prime Minister Modi used the lore of chaiwallahs and their down-to-earth nature as a political tool. He was successful in attracting large numbers of lower-class voters who related to his humble upbringing.
“He used the story well: All chaiwallahs are nice guys, he must be too,” said Jesey, a security guard from Kerala, discussing Modi’s rise to power.
Capitalizing on chai’s political value, Modi launched a political campaign in early 2014 called Chai Pe Charcha (Talk Over Tea). The mission was to connect to people by sitting down over a hot cup of tea and discussing some of India’s political issues. The campaign was designed such that Modi or other high-ranking officials from his political party would sit down at tea stalls across 30 cities in India and talk to the locals. These locations would also be connected to thousands of other tea stalls around the country, with some being able to ask questions through phone calls.
Chai at Large
Today India is one of the largest consumers and producers of tea, and chai culture has entrenched itself at all levels of society. The drink is especially popular among university students, who can be found clustered around chai stalls early in the morning after a long night of studying.
“It’s a daily ritual. Either you drink chai when you’re particularly happy or sad, or if it’s raining outside. Chai with friends and family is almost symbolic. Whenever I think of chai, I remember my entire family coming together at tea time to have chai and biscuits,” said Jumana Ibrahim, a student at New York University Abu Dhabi. Going to university abroad and traveling to different countries, Jumana often seeks out chai stalls.
The symbolic nature of chai seems cemented in the Indian mindset. It’s a drink for companionship, discussion, and debate. The complicated story of chai makes it that much more interesting. So, if you ever get the chance to stare down into that burning cup of sugary delight, think of all the history that has gone into that cup of chai. ❖
* 5 rupees: 0.07 USD; 0.06 EUR; 0.47 CNY