The chai tea debate: How the West played with India's favourite beverage

Chai. Photo: iStock/Seemanta Dutta

The term "chai tea," often used by non-Indians, has become a source of contention among 'desi' (Indian) and 'non-desi' netizens over the years. This linguistic redundancy – where "chai" already means "tea" in Hindi, Urdu, Persian, Russian, and Turkish – has sparked debates and articles on topics ranging from cultural appropriation to the history of colonization in India and the origins of tea plantations and tea consumption culture. While the phrase may seem innocuous, its usage highlights the complex interplay of language, culture, and history.

In many languages, including Hindi, Urdu, Persian, Russian, and Turkish, "chai" simply means tea. In English, "tea" refers to the beverage made from the Camellia sinensis plant. Thus, when one says "chai tea," they are essentially saying "tea tea," which is redundant.

In Indian culture, chai often refers to milk tea or masala chai, which is tea boiled with milk, sugar and often spiced with cardamom, cinnamon, ginger and cloves.

Masala chai is made by simmering tea leaves with milk, water, and a blend of aromatic spices like cardamom, ginger, cloves, and cinnamon. Photo: Shutterstock/Santhosh Varghese

As masala chai gained popularity worldwide, especially in Western countries, it was marketed as chai tea to distinguish it from other types of tea. The term chai tea was likely coined to clarify that it is a specific type of tea, flavoured with spices, to consumers who might not be familiar with the term chai alone. Starbucks even offers a popular drink called "Chai Tea Latte," which has become a staple for many customers. It is a modern adaptation of the traditional Indian masala chai, tailored to suit a global audience. This drink embodies the blend of traditional flavours with modern convenience and customization, making it a favourite in the Starbucks lineup.

The "chai tea" conundrum serves as a fascinating example of how language, culture, and history intertwine in complex ways. This linguistic blend reflects both the global appeal of traditional flavours and the necessity of cultural sensitivity.


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