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  • Writer's pictureMona Shah

The Ritual of Chai



If you grew up in a desi household, you know how important chai is to us, a warm tradition that is at once calming and welcoming. Every household has their own traditions and rituals around the making of chai signaling the slow awakening of the household in the morning, bringing everyone together.


Whenever I visit India the smell of brewing chai leaves and spices permeates the air, wafting from homes and street vendors. Everywhere you go — on buses, in shops, banks, offices, high end boutiques, and outside every train station — you will see people drinking, what we called in our Gujrati house “cha.” “Chai” literally means “tea” in Hindi which further originates from “cha,” the Chinese word for “tea.”


The folklore surrounding chai dates back to between 5000 and 9000 years ago to an ancient royal court – either India or Siam. The reigning king created the recipe as a cleansing, healing Ayurvedic beverage. Another legend traces the journey of Prince Bodhi Dharma, who travelled to China, to spread Buddhism. He was committed to staying awake during his 9–year mission, but nearing the end of his third year, he was exhausted, so he decided to pluck a few leaves of a tea shrub and eat them. The leaves gave him the strength to stay awake, so his followers too started consuming tea as a stimulant.


The English cuppa tea

History traces the arc of tea as introduced to India by the British, who established the British East India Company in an attempt to reverse the overwhelming Chinese monopoly on tea supply to Great Britain. In 1870 approximately 90% of tea consumed in Great Britain was supplied by China but by 1900 this had reduced to 10% largely replaced by tea sourced in India and Ceylon.


Indians couldn’t afford that black tea and thus they modified their chai with the addition of milk, fresh ginger, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, black pepper, other spices depending on the region. In Northern India you might find chai with prominent notes of fennel and ginger, while in Kashmir you might find chai laced with saffron. Every household has their own version, passed down from generation to generation.


You likely make your chai just the way your mom did. I did too till about 2 weeks ago when I tripped and had a pretty bad fall. I was badly injured, bruised, with sprains and a hairline fracture on my right hand. Forced to rest, I was immobilized and hubbly somehow hobbled together meals. But the chai, well that was another story. We wanted it made the traditional way, but with work meetings he couldn’t always make time for chai time!


That’s when I discovered Monica Sunny, the founder of The Chai Box, and her chai concentrate. I was skeptical of this “chai in a bottle,” but when you open it you can smell the yummy blend of tea and spices, and it is so very convenient. Just heat and add milk and voila! Homemade chai, that gave us the perfect cup when I couldn’t make my own.


The Chai Box was named one of Oprah’s Favorite Things in 2021, and they offer premium, single-origin spiced teas from small-scale farmers in India. Every blend is hand crafted in small batches by this family business that started in Atlanta. A story of family, love and connection, all over a cup of chai.


Monica Sunny in Kerala, India, from where she sources her chai spices. (Photo courtesy: The Chai Box)


An immigrant family’s ritual

When Sunny was nine years old, her family moved from India to the U.S. and settled in Atlanta, GA. “We came as immigrants and my parents were working a lot just to make ends meet,” recalls Sunny. Alone at home with her brother, they had to cook and clean, while exploring a strange new world. As she tried to make sense of her surroundings, the only thing that kept Sunny grounded was her family’s chai ritual. It also reminded her of home.


“It was the one thing that stayed consistent,” she says. “As an immigrant family, we may not have been able to afford much, but we could always afford chai.”

She remembers her grandparents in Punjab would wake up early, at 5 a.m. and make chai, this “me” time that she later understood and incorporates into her daily life today. She too wakes up early every day and immerses herself in the ritual of chai making, a time for reflection and quiet.


An immigrant family’s ritual

She developed the Chai Box or dabba for her three sons. Wanting to pass along the tradition to them, she filled the dabba with different chai blends, sugar and spices, and every Friday they would whisk out the dabba for chai time with mom and the boys. As her sons got older, they wanted to learn how to prepare it themselves. So, Sunny took out her spice dabba and began to teach them.


Her oldest son had some allergies and thus she preferred playdates at her house. Eventually their friends, and their friends’ moms wanted to learn too, so would ask for the chai box and they would all enjoy tea time together. Sunny began to teach people who to make chai the right way, very different from the sweet, syrupy stuff at Starbucks.


The business of a proper cup of chai

One day someone ordered 50 chai boxes and the seeds for a business were sown. A business she runs with her family—her parents, sons and husband. In fact, she developed the chai concentrate along with her son Ethan, a college student who relied on it because he lived in a dorm without a stove. When we spoke, her mom and dad, who come over every day, had just arrived with lunch (saag and roti). She credits her dad, who ran a Dairy Queen, with teaching her the fundamentals of the business. They were all getting ready for “production day,” right after lunch. It was her father-in -aw who introduced her to farmers in Kerala, where they source their spices “ethically and sustainably.”


“It started with simply wanting to introduce my boys to chai, but now I'm teaching people how to make chai the traditional, proper way,” Sunny says. “I want to make sure I teach my kids the value of family.” She makes time for them and teaches them through their chai ritual to make time for family and for each other.



CHAI BOX CHAI RECIPE


The Chai Box. (Photo courtesy: The Chai Box)


Serving: 2 Cups of Chai


Ingredients:

  • 1 cup of water

  • 1 cup of milk or nut milk

  • 3-4 tsp of True Blend (loose leaf tea blend)

  • 4 cardamom pods, lightly crushed open

  • 2 cloves, lightly crushed

  • 3 small pieces of cinnamon

  • A pinch of fennel (8-10 seeds)


Directions:

  1. On the Stove (Traditional Indian method of making Chai):

  2. In a small sauce pan, add water, cardamom, clove, cinnamon and fennel and bring to a boil.

  3. Add in True Blend loose leaf tea and simmer for 1-2 minutes.

  4. Add milk and bring it to a boil.

  5. Turn off stove once chai starts to bubble up.

  6. Use a strainer to strain ingredients when pouring chai into a tea cup.

  7. Add honey or sugar if desired.





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