I am a tea fiend. My kitchen is full of tea-making paraphernalia: a stove-top kettle, reusable muslin teabags, dozens of tea spoons, cups, saucers, and mugs, Twinings bags, tins of looseleaf (two black, two green, peppermint, fennel & liquorice) and blooming tea, small pieces of chocolate and tea biscuits...well, you get the idea. But there are two things missing from my tea cabinet: sugar, and chai.
Although I’m not much into dieting, I don’t like sugar. I prefer salt on my oatmeal (it’s a Scottish thing), and eat mostly dark chocolate, the kind that’s just bitter enough to leave my lips with the teensiest lemon-pucker. To me, sugar is the great pretender, sliding into a cup of the good stuff and acting as if it intensifies the taste when it actually smothers the flavor, leaving only a sick, cloying feeling on the tongue. Chai, with its inherent spice and warmth, doesn’t need sugar or milk, and yet I can’t drink it without either, suckered into adding them because that’s how I drank chai growing up. In our house, chai inevitably evolves (devolves?) into a chai latte, made in a saucepan, or with a mix, and it almost always makes me ill. Joe, of course, loves them.
Sugar-smothered lack of spice aside, I’m not entirely sure what it is about chai lattes that irritates me. Is it that I’ve never seen an Indian drinking one? The closest my family comes (unless one of us is sick), is regular tea with cardamom-sweetened condensed milk (which I also despise; not a big fan of seviyan, either). Perhaps it’s that most people I see drinking chai lattes don’t actually like tea, or because I’ve heard them cried up as a health drink. And then there’s the lack of authenticity, insofar as anything marketed as Indian--ready made masala from the supermarket, bhuja in shiny, potato crisp packets spiced with pepper and not much else, make your own dal soup mixes--is authentic. In some ways, I love the availability of Indian everything (frozen samosas, anyone?). Yet behind the ease of ducking down to the Whole Foods near my house, or watching Joe buy a heavy, sugary, fake spiced drink at the Starbucks, lurks ordinariness.
Ordinary isn’t a bad thing; exotic isn’t a good thing. As a child, non-Indians would tell me I have exotic eyes, and I hated it because it left me feeling like a sideshow exhibit. Yet perhaps the ready-made-get-your-Bollywood-on products everywhere (chai lattes included) make me yearn for that moment of “oh my, your eyes are so exotic” because underneath my knee-jerk irritation, there lay satisfaction: satisfaction that I was not, am not, ordinary. Each comment was reassurance that I was special, a member of the Indian club, a super secret society wherein members are known only to one another by our love of heavy, ornamental clothing, bright gold jewelry, and tolerance for intensely spicy food. As an adult, particularly one already on the outs with my Indianness, I think I crave that reassurance even more.
Chai lattes will probably never be “my drink”, though I do have fond memories of my aunts making them (and forcing them on me) when I’ve been ill. And I’m unlikely to buy a ready-made dal mix any time soon, especially as I’m not sure my Indian-ego can handle it. But I’d like to think my attitude toward chai lattes is changing, that I detest them because of their too-sweet taste rather than my gut Alice in Wonderland-drink-up-brown-upreaction to them. And much as I’d like to go on a chai-destroying crusade through my neighborhood, I don’t need to, because I already know I’m special--because my kidlet and husband remind me everyday.