Chatting Over Chai

By Shyama Parui

It was Thanksgiving afternoon when our family of friends gathered to enjoy a sumptuous feast. The post lunch discussion was unsurprisingly focused on food and as soon as the sugar slump set in, the topic diverted to tea. The mention of this stimulant was enough to infuse us with the energy needed for planning a tea party. And thus, an elaborate excuse to get together over chai pani was set in motion even before we had fully digested the previous meal.

If apple pie is quintessentially American, chai (tea) is its beloved Indian counterpart. In its most popular avatar, chai is brewed with ginger or cardamom, lightened with milk and served steaming hot at pretty much any time of the day. Don't mistake tea sellers, whether they offer cutting chai on the street corners of Mumbai or serve fragrant tea in earthen cups all over rural India, as mere merchants of a popular drink. They are therapists, informers, and artists in disguise, capable of expertly creating an invigorating sensory journey.

As I write, I am drawn to the allure of its refreshing aroma. Chai has evolved as the morning fuel enjoyed with breakfast favorites like toast or poha (flattened rice), an afternoon ritual served with biscuits specially made to be dunked, a recharger one craves for after a long day at work, or the perfect accompaniment to your TV show. Born in a family of tea lovers, I was and still am the odd person out for favoring coffee. Make no mistake, I will not decline any offer of tea. From childhood to adolescence, cha, as Bengalis say it, was the topic of much discussion in our family.

My mother's survival as the caretaker of six children relied heavily on consuming at least four petite cups of tea a day, whereas my father presented arguments against the innocent beverage at every opportunity. His cautious words somehow did not deter my siblings from adopting cha as their drink of choice once they had graduated from Bournvita. One thing that still perplexes me is how my sisters paired jhal muri (puffed rice with hot spices) with Assam tea, setting their tongues on fire in a masochistic, gastronomic delight.

If I must enjoy tea in solitude, I like a cup of Earl Grey or Darjeeling, with no cream or sugar. In the company of my family, this version invites rather strange looks. I notice at least one person shaking their head in disapproval probably thinking, “America has changed her." Tea has always meant more than a beverage. During childhood, tea was the soothing medicine that comforted us when we were under the weather. Warming my cold hands around the mug was at times enough to make me feel better. In my teen years my older sister made extra strong tea to help me stay up to study for finals with the caffeine pushing me to endure late nights of cramming. And, given a choice I will select my husband's adrak aur elaichi wali chai (tea with ginger and cardamom) over a dozen red roses. So, if coffee is my first love, tea is my best friend.

I am not alone in my association of tea with “a good feeling." A trip to the local grocery store with dedicated shelves or even an entire aisle for teas, might lead you to think that whatever the mood or ailment, there's a tea for that. Green tea with strawberry promises a healthy glow, the box right next to it with chamomile aims to calm you down, and the list goes on. However, every coin has two sides and there are some occasions when the experience can be less than favorable. Culturally in Northern and Central India, chai is considered the ultimate test of how hospitable you are. If you simply offer tea you may earn a single point, but successfully coaxing the guest until they bow to the pressure and take a few obligatory sips, ensures that you have passed with flying colors. Trust me, you do not want to be that guest. Movies and commercials portray the stereotypical image of a young woman carrying a tray of tea for an eligible bachelor and prospective in-laws in the stale ladki dekhne aaye hain scenario, making many women of my generation detest serving tea as if it was bacon mixed with oolong.

Barring the exceptions mentioned above, tea tends to transcend occasions and social strata bringing people together to meet their common goals whether it is chatter, heavy political debates, or camaraderie, and ends up cementing friendships and family ties for life. My personal journey with tea is not over yet as I look forward to trying the flavors of newer options like matcha, bubble and kombucha to mention just a few.

Now, where's that kettle?


Shyama Parui is a long time North Carolina resident and an ardent writer. You can reach her at: