My Cultural Currency: Chai Tea Latte

Tuesday, September 15, 2015 - 11:46am


Illustration by Cheryll Victuelles


There is no drink called a “chai tea latte.” I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t exist in the same way that Hallmark Holidays don’t exist. A “chai tea latte” is the Grandfather’s Day of coffee shop drinks — neither of them is actually real and is made to sound more exotic or genuine to siphon more money out of you.

Every time someone in front of me at the Starbucks line — or the Panera line, or the Espresso Royale line for that matter — orders a “chai tea latte,” a little part of me dies. The name sounds quite a bit silly when you realize that, when translated from Hindi, it actually means “tea tea latte.”

You’re ordering a “tea tea latte” and it makes absolutely no sense.

My particular gripe with modern coffee retailers is interesting: I drink coffee like it’s water. And I’m not talking about some diluted, cinnamon-spiced mocha-frapped nonsense. I mean dark-roasted, pitch-black coffee. It doesn’t matter if it’s the crappy, generic office-brand or imported, hand-roasted Brazilian beans from the depths of the Amazon. If it tastes bitter and keeps me up, I will drink it.

That sounds terrifyingly unhealthy and a little bit crazy, and I should definitely work on weaning myself off of caffeine, I know.

Based on what you know about my coffee addiction, I really shouldn’t care too much about what a “chai tea latte” is or why it’s popular or why it has become such a staple on coffee shop menus in the past few years.

But here’s the thing: I inherited the caffeine addiction from my dad, because the first thing he drinks before he leaves for work is the chai my mom makes for him every morning. He’ll always beeline to pull out his mug and takes out a sieve that perfectly fits his mug from the cabinet beneath the stove, to filter out the leaves when he pours his tea into the cup.  

My dad can’t get through his day without drinking chai. When we went to India about five or six years ago as a family, the first thing he bought to bring back with him was a Costco-sized container of Wagh Bakri, a very strong brand of chai.

He kept sniffing the lid and saying, “Smell the chai, Tanya.” It was weird, yes, but I’ve grown up seeing that every morning while getting ready to go to elementary school, middle school and high school. Just as my dad watched his own father do the same thing his whole life, and my grandfather watched his father before him, and so on.

Chai is deeply ingrained in Indian social culture.

The tagline for Wagh Bakri is roughly translated to “warmth of relationships.” It’s plastered on all of their billboards and a recurring theme in their television commercials. The first thing my grandmother, aunts, and uncles in India offer guests to their homes is not coffee, or water. It’s chai.

Author Divya Prakash Dubey, in another rough translation from Hindi, writes in, Masala Chai, his short story collection, “chai is basically like another form of social networking.” It builds connections and relationships; it acts as a source of comfort and warmth.

Chai is rooted in Indian culture in the same way coffee is distinctly an American habit. That’s why I can’t help but get annoyed when coffee shops advertise chai with a completely inaccurate term in an attempt to sound exotic.

Chai should remain a menu item in coffee shops. But it shouldn’t be referred to as a “chai tea latte.”  I admit that in the larger scheme of cultural appropriation crimes committed by the western world, a “chai tea latte” is hardly pressing. But it’s still important.