In 1999, Starbucks introduced the chai tea latte. The world is still recovering.
The chai tea latte, the first in a series of three tea lattes the chain would release, is four years older than Starbucks’ pumpkin spice latte, a rep confirms. Starbucks’ chai tea latte is a frothy and sweet drink that’s been marketed with taglines like “It smells like Christmas.” As the most celebrated holiday India, Diwali, approaches, it’s notable that marketing chai around Christmas has resonated in America. Eight years ago, Taylor Swift even posted a recipe for chai sugar cookies with cinnamon eggnog frosting that went viral.
Starbucks has since spliced that “cozy blend of chai spices” to produce variants using gingerbread and other flavors. The chain, for better or worse, has served as a gateway to South Asian-style chai, introducing millions to its existence while simultaneously irritating those with memories of brewing tea spiked with ingredients like black pepper, cardamom, and ginger with their nanis.
The practice of drinking tea in India is a holdover from British colonialism; colonists introduced tea as a crop in India to disrupt China’s tea market. While the British Empire outlawed slavery in 1843, colonists found a workaround by using indentured servants to establish tea estates in northeastern India.
The word “chai” is Hindi for “tea,” but is derived from “cha,” a Mandarin word. The story goes that much of the tea was too bitter for Indian consumption and needed something to mask that flavor. And with plenty of spices, the kind the East India Company was already trading, the subcontinent had a homegrown remedy. The masala is what sets the tea apart.
Each South Asian region and country has a different spin on chai. Mint is popular in Kashmir while Mumbai chai has more ginger. Indians may use buffalo milk for richer flavors; Pakistanis may flavor their tea with pistachio. There are even versions coming from countries in other parts of the world: A small cafe chain that started in Dearborn, Michigan, and with two Chicago-area locations — Qahwah House — brews strong cups of Yemeni-style chai to order.
Brewing quality chai takes training and a steady supply of ingredients that most coffee houses lack. However, a selection is emerging, driven by the South Asian diaspora. Brands like Patel Brothers remain a go-to for folks like chef Zeeshan Shah of Logan Square’s Superkhana International, while Tasting India produces both spice mixes and masala chai sourced from Assam in northeastern India. Mail-order companies such as Kolkata Chai Co. and Diaspora Co. have also emerged to sate the thirst for better brews. (Notably, baker Valeria Socorro Velazquez Lindsten of Loba Pastry in North Center has used Diaspora Co.’s turmeric in her Golden Snail, a flaky pastry that’s like a mature pain aux raisins with a pleasant kick.)
Misconceptions surrounding chai still peeve many within the community, and these frustrations have seeped into mainstream media. Nothing illustrates this better than your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.
In 2023’s Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, viewers are introduced to Pavitr Prabhakar, the Spider-Man of Mumbattan (an amalgamation of Mumbai and Manhattan). Prabhakar shares his ritual of drinking tea with Maya Auntie (an Indian version of Aunt May) with Miles Morales’s version of Spider-Man — a biracial hero who’s Black American and Puerto Rican; Morales enthusiastically responds, “I love chai tea” — a reply seemingly wounding Prabhakar worse than a Green Goblin pumpkin bomb.
“What did you just say — ‘chai tea’?” Prabhakar scoffs at Morales. “‘Chai’ means ‘tea,’ bro. You’re saying ‘tea tea.’ Would I ask you for a ‘coffee coffee with room for cream cream’?”
The voice actor who plays Prabhakar, Karan Soni, says the conversation, inspired by the many Indian artists who worked on the film, was designed to trigger South Asians. “I think like any Indian or brown person in the audience is just gonna be cheering when that happens because it’s finally so liberating to be like, yes, now Spider-Man has said it, so please, it’s canon, do not change this,” Soni says in a movie featurette.
Chai and the family stone
Like Spidey and his Maya Auntie, many South Asians have some sort of family memory attached to chai.
Barkha Cardoz has fond memories of spending weekends with her husband, the late celebrated chef Floyd Cardoz. The Cardozes’ New York restaurants raised the bar for Indian cuisine in America, fusing French techniques with Indian culinary traditions. “For Floyd, he wanted that strong cup of coffee which had to be like level 10 with like four drops of milk in it... For me — I love the smell of coffee, but I can’t handle it,” Barkha says, noting that when it came to chai, her husband would always ask for an abundance of fresh ginger.
Before the chef’s COVID-related death in 2020, he’d planned to launch a line of spices. Barkha Cardoz made her husband’s vision come true via a partnership with New York City spice company Burlap & Barrel. In November of this year, the Cardoz Legacy Collection launched loose-leaf masala chai through a partnership with LA’s Art of Tea.
Barkha grew up in India as part of a Sindhi community, a people who come from the Pakistani province of Sindh. That chai tradition doesn’t involve adding a lot of additional spices unless someone is ailing from a sore throat or other malady, Barkha says. Her grandmother took it upon herself to make chai for the family, a tradition that Barkha has continued with her grandchildren in the U.S.
“It’s like you’re pouring your love into it to help them start the day well, whether it’s like going to school or during exams or just going out to work,” Barkha says. “It’s that process of ‘I see you, I love you, and this is how I’m going to send you out into the world with love.’”
The proportions of milk and water are also crucial, as is the black tea. In the U.S., South Asians often mix some ratio of water and milk with black tea leaves from brands like Lipton and Bigelow that are readily available at Jewel-Osco, or those offered at a slight discount at grocers along Devon.
Shah of Superkhana International is partial to Brooke Bond Red Label, a brand he’s been using since he was an 8-year-old making chai for his paternal grandmother. Her morning regimen involved tea and dry toast: “That’s all she wanted for breakfast,” he says.
Shah admits resentment that he was stuck with making the tea, not understanding the cultural significance, but — eventually — he began drinking the chai with his grandmother. She didn’t speak English, only Urdu, and Shah didn’t understand the latter. Through arm gestures, Shah eventually understood his grandma preferred a 50-50 mix of water and milk in her chai. American whole milk irked Shah’s father, who prefers the creamier taste of tea made with buffalo milk in India.
His father would take him to tea shops along Devon Avenue, a strip home to a cluster of Indian shops. Shah laments the closure of Kamdar Plaza grocery store and cafe and the original Annapurna (the vegetarian restaurant has expanded to a large location down the street from its original quaint quarters). Both were regular chai stops during Shah’s visits with his father where they could also procure some salty snacks.
As he grew older, Shah made chai at parties and some of his friends would call him “Chai Guy.” Before opening Superkhana, he served the chai, an iteration of his family’s recipe, to business partner and co-chef Yoshi Yamada. Yamada had earned a Fulbright scholarship to visit India and learn about the country’s food. After tasting Shah’s chai, Yamada insisted they serve it at the restaurant. Superkhana has even made chai-infused ice cream, layering it between two Parle-G biscuits for dessert.
Heena Patel, of San Francisco’s Besharam, grew up in Mumbai and says she struggled finding proper chai in the Bay Area. She’s partial to tea leaves processed via the “crush, tear, curl” method” (CTC).
“But it’s the ‘masala spice’ blend that makes chai what it is. It’s why it’s so hard to find a coffee shop that has a chai experience that emulates what I grew up with in India,” Patel says. “The intensity of the spices and ritual of how the chai is presented and served is also very different.”
Shah says it takes him 45 minutes to brew a fresh pot of chai for his restaurant — enough time to get the tea brewed at the right temperature and the spices melded with the proper milk ratio. The process is integral: “I think the popularity of our chai is a pretty good tell that it’s working,” he says.
When asked if he’d ever consider using a chai concentrate at his restaurant, Shah shoots a look of confusion and disgust, shaking his head. The chai made at most American coffee shops comes straight from cartons and doesn’t meet the chef’s standards. Chicago’s Intelligentsia Coffee (a part of the Peet’s Coffee global conglomerate) makes its own under the Kilogram Tea banner. Milwaukee-based Rishi Tea also has an offering.
“It’s not really chai — it’s just black tea with a ton of cinnamon,” says Chicago chef Jasmine Sheth of gourmet ingredient shop Tasting India. “There are no layers or nuances of flavor, you can’t taste the ginger, cloves, or black pepper.”
Sheth wants to find more cafe clients to carry her teas, but it’s challenging as bigger brands have come to define the market with overly sweet and watered-down products. However, she’s found success by landing a trio of New York clients who carry Tasting India chai.
Meanwhile, the concentrate that pops up the most on shelves in Chicago — from bakeries like Floriole Cafe, coffee shops like Passion House, pubs like Middle Brow Brewery, or stores like Dom’s Kitchen & Market — comes from Simone Freeman, founder of Freeman House Chai.
Freeman owned Sol Cafe, a coffee shop that debuted in 2012 and closed earlier this year in Rogers Park. As demand for chai increased, Freeman needed a solution: “Outside of coffee, chai was the most important specialty beverage to have,” she says. “This was before matcha exploded, and it was really important to me that we have an awesome product.”
The market offerings were lacking: “I think honestly, the biggest thing is that [it tasted] factory-made with preservatives,” Freeman says. “It didn’t have that house-made fresh chai feel, most of this was like concentrated liquid carton chai.”
Having connections within Chicago’s culinary community, Freeman and her team pushed the product, which Freeman says has been tweaked over the years. They’ve also partnered with Oatly to keep the product dairy-free.
Freeman, who is not South Asian, has steered clear of using any cultural stereotypes — chai and yoga are a combo treated like a mantra by the Eat Pray Love crowd. The product’s name has changed from Sol Chai to Freeman House Chai, a subtle nod to Chicago’s role in creating house music.
Though Freeman’s name is on the front of the bottle, another partner is onboard: Sanchit Mulmuley, a friend from her days at the University of Wisconsin. Mulmuley, an entrepreneur with an MBA from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, may not have his name on the front of the bottle, but his signature, along with Freeman’s, appears on the back. He describes his career as being at the crossroads of agriculture, food and beverage, and technology, which made him an ideal partner to help Freeman scale her business. He says he’s helped with the supply chain, ensuring ingredients are more authentically sourced.
“My earliest association with chai is being on Indian railways and you know, the chaiwallahs that come by and give you something hot to drink at the station,” Mulmuley says.
Mulmuley talks about how the U.S., as a nation of immigrants, has created a cuisine of fusion, and Freeman House Chai is a product of that fusion. He’s proud to see Indian products like chai find a mainstream audience. And he believes that Freeman House’s concentrate is well-positioned to grab market share. Americans are looking for simplicity, especially with a volatile labor outlook. Mulmuley mentions a visit to India where he was quickly served chai at a cafe in less than a minute. The cafe had a staff of seven, an embarrassment of riches compared to its American counterparts.
“It’s a nonstop operation,” Mulmuley says of his Indian chai experience. “If you think about the labor realities in the U.S., that’s just not feasible.”
Concentrates are getting better and are here to stay. Even Barkha Cardoz admits that while raising young children and waking up at 5:30 a.m. regularly, if chai concentrates were available back then like they are right now, she’d be tempted to take the shortcut, much to her grandmother’s chagrin.
Chiya Chai, a cafe with three Chicago locations, has a regular presence at Daley Plaza during Chicago’s massive Christmas festival, Christkindlmarket. The company recently described chai as “the original mocktail.” Co-owner Rajee Aryal says the Christmas market felt chai would be a good alternative to alcohol. They source their tea from Nepal, which differs from Indian chai because India has more access to spices. There was some resistance at first, but now it’s in its fifth year at Christkindlmarket: “For people who were open-minded it was such a no-brainer, yeah of course — chai fits right in with the Christmas setting.”
Aryal sees chai as an extension of hospitality, the first thing offered by hosts to visitors. But she’s seeing changes in chai culture. Beyond folks opting for non-dairy options, there’s worry in the South Asian community about diabetes, so sugar’s popularity is dropping.
For Freeman House, places like All Together Now, a hip wine store in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood, stocks the concentrate next to nonalcoholic beverages like hopped water and kombucha. The reverse is also happening. Chai cocktails are popular at Chiya Chai. The beer world is also taking notice. Chicago’s Goose Island Beer Co., owned by Budweiser’s parent company, is considering releasing a chai flavor of its Bourbon County Brand Stout.
Meanwhile, pop-ups have taken the once community-centered chai gathering among South Asians mainstream, with nocturnal events that welcome people of all ages, but give twentysomethings in particular an alternative to bars. That’s what the women behind Chalo! have been doing around Chicago: Armed with a pair of induction burners, Ghania Chaudhry, Ema Khan, and Khansa Noor make chai to order while guests play ludo, meet new people, and dance.
In October, they threw an event in Wicker Park at an art gallery overlooking Milwaukee Avenue. Yes, there were a few kinks — folks had to wait a little while for their orders — but to be sipping rich lavender or pistachio chai at 10:30 p.m. on a Saturday in an area known for PBR and Malört consumption could be a sign of the times. Dressed in South Asian garb, Western wear, and some in drag, folks had a place where they could fully express their identities and enjoy their tea without having to concentrate much. Imagine that.