Living languages, that is, ones still in use on an active basis, are pretty fluid, with new terms coming around, others dropping out, and meanings sliding around between them. When a term comes into common usage, even if it’s incorrect, it gets accepted and is hard to change. Such is the case with the term “chai tea.”
Tea vendors both large and small use this term. You can see their products everywhere labeled “chai tea.” Usually, they use the term to indicate a tea that has various spices added, most often things like cardamom, anise, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, and black pepper. Thus, many tea drinkers have come to think of “chai” as meaning “spices” or “spiced.” I used to think this, too, until one day I ordered chai at the Indian restaurant and the server (who was also one of the owners — it was a family business) explained that “chai” meant “tea.” He then asked if I wanted it spiced and with milk and sugar. I thought that’s what I had ordered. Clearly, there was a breakdown in communication here.
Which is why I fuss so much about tea terminology.
It turns out that the correct term for spiced tea is “masala chai.” “Masala” is a spice mix, something I learned at the local Indian market. In fact, there are masalas for different foods, such as chicken, beef, and even vegetables like chickpeas (garbanzos) and murgh (spinach). I bought some tea masala to use when making my own spiced tea. Now when I go to that Indian restaurant and order my favorite dish (lamb vindaloo extra spicy), I know also to order “masala chai.” They don’t use too much masala, and the milk helps quell the fiery spices in the vindaloo.
It certainly pays to use the right terminology, but the issue is using that right terminology in the right situation or context. If I go to a tea vendor’s web site or to a brick and mortar store and ask for “masala chai,” quite often the response is either “no search results found” or a glazed-eye stare and the sound of crickets chirping. It means being somewhat of a linguist or interpreter. Okay, now I’m in the Indian restaurant so I use the term “masala chai.” Okay, now I’m in a tea shop, so I gotta use the term “chai tea.”
Maybe it’s best just to order straight tea and do the “masala-ing” myself (see what I mean about “living language”?). Fine with me, since I’ll get those spices just right!
Chai Tea at the Indian Restaurant
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