Chai as an Experience: Finding a Traditional Cup of Indian Tea in San Francisco

Chai as an Experience: Finding a Traditional Cup of Indian Tea in San Francisco
Image Source: Flickr user Will De Freitas.

It was a hot day on the Deccan Express with my school friends, and we were excited about the train ride away from the hustle and bustle of Bombay to the cooler hill station of Lonavala!  The overnight excursion was more than a getaway for me and my teenage classmates but also a respite from the grind of classes, a release from our structured city lives, a coming of age of sorts and, of course, the discovery of a potent cup of street-side chai.   

The heat and humidity of Bombay can slow your systems down to a grinding halt, and, while it might seem counter-intuitive, a small hot cup of masala chai served in glass cups, sans handles, would give you the much-needed jolt. There was a method to this ritual in the way you held the cup at the top and bottom edges so you didn’t burn your hands, slow sips off the surface to only imbibe the quickly-cooling top layers, the gentle puffing to cool the chai at just the right pace, and the consuming focus that forced everyone to stop whatever they were doing and be in the moment.  

My mother followed her daily ritual of drinking tea in the morning and at “tea time,” which was essentially around 6pm, with a savory or sweet snack to tide over the hunger till dinner, which was rarely served before 8:30 or 9 pm. I spent countless hours basking in the scent of steaming chai in my parent’s living room, even though we weren’t allowed to drink tea due to the caffeine.

The chai ritual, which began as “tea time” with the British, was more than just the act of drinking tea.  It was a time to wind down for a few moments and take a break. It was a chance to catch up with family, visit friends, celebrate the promise of a new day, seek relief from the afternoon heat as temperatures dropped in the early evening, or just get a much-needed boost.  

Before I took a single sip, chai defined and structured my day. Chai added two additional markers to the three meals of the day. Boiling some tea on the stove top was a carefully crafted ritual in each household and if guests visited during tea time, they were naturally drawn into the ritual.

To understand the importance of chai is to delicately unravel the very threads of Indian culture. The way we celebrate the tea-drinking tradition reflects everything from the way we treat our guests to the way we prioritize our lives. As an adult, my first sip of milky, spiced chai was the first step toward a lifetime of moments delineated by a comforting Indian tradition.

Ingredients for the Perfect Masala Chai

The warming masalas (or spices) of chai have become somewhat universal. From its origins in ancient Ayurvedic medicinal texts to today’s tea time tradition, masala chai spices have been essential to India’s culture for centuries. Today’s chai latte at Starbucks is an Americanized version of the brew you get by the roadside at Indian diners, in railway stations, or from your building’s chaiwalla (essentially, a person who makes tea)—and a derivative of the ancient healing spice mix that invigorates digestive agni with heat.

The tea is steeped with a blend of rich spices that produce the complex and satisfying chai flavor. A masala spice mix typically includes one or more of the following: green cardamom, cloves, coriander, black peppercorn, cinnamon, ginger, coriander, and star anise—which deliver a heat-generating combination that ancient and modern scientists alike believe improves digestion, metabolism, and the immune system.

Ginger reduces the acidic nature of the mix, cloves improve peristalsis and intestinal health, and the black tea base acts as a powerful heart-healthy antioxidant. Every household has its own particular blend of spices, and every preparer of chai has varying preferences for how long to simmer the tea, which spices to add, and how much milk and sugar should finish the cup. Friends will often make separate batches of chai to ensure everyone gets a cup that matches their personal preferences.

Here at DOSA, we had each of our twelves Indian chefs submit samples of their family recipes, and we picked and then fine-tuned our collective favorite. We prepare chai in the traditional South Indian way: piping hot and aromatic with spices. We steep our loose leaf tea (which is strained later) over a medium flame and bring it to a boil while stirring to just the right shade of rich, dark caramel-brown. Finally, we stir in locally-sourced organic milk or almond milk and simmer some more for the perfect creamy finish. A personal favorite touch of my own is to caramelize the milk—and never use non-fat. As my mother always said, you can reduce the fat content by drinking a smaller cup.

The Surrounding Story of Indian Chai

Although the colonization of the Indian subcontinent was oppressive and inequitable, the ritual and habit of drinking chai introduced by the British empire left a positive and long-lasting impact. While British high-tea holds the trophy for extravagance and decorum, its more relaxed evolution in India is an intricate dance of cultural knowledge, societal expectations, and an inherent part of Indian hospitality. A ritual practice in its frequency but seemingly casual in its presentation, tea time in Indian culture stems from ancient Ayurvedic medicine—combined with 19th century British tradition—and involves a wide variety of teas (including locally-grown varietals from Darjeeling and Assam, among others).

Unlike British high tea, chai is always surrounded by a leisurely and languid atmosphere. Tea drinkers take their time, relax, decompress, and restore their energy for the remainder of the day. This relaxation ritual is such a cultural standard that, in response to excessive demands on her time, my mother will often put everything on hold until she has had her tea; it’s the ultimate way to mitigate stress and quickly recharge your batteries. 

Chai does not exist without its history—or without its accompanying snacks. The essential chai recipe differs by household, as does the food that accompanies the tea service. Showmanship and hospitality go hand-in-hand here. A discrete observer will notice from the snacks alone who the host is, where they’re from, how monied they are, and how much their company is valued.

Teatime dishes feature everything from simple biscuits (or what you might call cookies in the U.S.) to elaborate regional specialties called namkeen (loosely translated from Hindi as “salty” in English). These savory fried dough pieces or crackers served with chai are the Indian equivalent of a salty party mix—not particularly healthy, but delightfully tasty. Namkeen snacks are made of lentil flours and flavored with intense spices. Hosts might also offer samosas, pakoras, or kachori, a zesty snack made of dough stuffed with spiced paste. American visitors are often surprised by the combination of savory, spiced snacks served with chai, but the complementing flavors cannot be denied.  Plus, Indian snacks and meals don’t always strive for an overlap in flavors, but embrace a wide disparity in culinary tastes that can all occur in one bite!

Bringing Chai Stateside

With the chai latte, traditional Indian chai has gained intense popularity in the United States. Unfortunately, the rejuvenating function of chai in Indian culture is sometimes lost in translation. Like the Mexican siesta or the Italian midday riposa, a break for chai is a therapeutic moment to set your worries aside. Even during cocktail hour, a warming mix of chai with rum or bourbon and a dash of cream makes for a relaxant like no other.

If any city in the states needs this mandatory R&R, it’s San Francisco. Our texting thumbs fly faster than our light rail train on the daily commute to tech headquarters across the Bay Area, and we never seem to pause to enjoy life’s little pleasures. Restaurants like DOSA aim to change that. When you enter our restaurant for a warm cup of spicy chai, simply enjoy the moment. Feel the warmth of a traditional cup of tea reaching the core of your being and take a deep breath of its spicy fragrance. For a moment, you can rest. Stop by one of our locations on Valencia and Fillmore to taste (and feel) the difference chai can make in your life.

DOSA Valencia