Difficult History: Chai and Protest

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It’s been a stressful week, so while I’m about to talk politics (albeit, 100-year-old politics), I’m going to do it with what many of us consider to be a singularly comforting beverage: masala chai. Fair warning — while I did learn how to make masala chai from my Indian housemate, I am still a white lady talking about how tea fit into Indian politics. I’m largely drawing my distilled history from A Thirst for Empire, which I’ve used for other “Difficult History” posts, though I did look at a few other sources, which I’ll mention as they come up.

Alright. So, my ultimate premise is that masala chai, as we know it today, was originally a kind of culinary protest. The chaiwallahs who made it probably didn’t think about it that way, but the way that masala chai is made today, by boiling tea, spices, milk, sugar, and water together, stems from a practice of frugality which went in direct opposition to the purpose of introducing tea into widespread use in India in the late 19th and early 20th century.

You see, despite the fact that native varieties of Camellia sinensis were found in the Indian subcontinent, and eventually became the main stock from which commodity Indian tea was grown, tea was not widely consumed in India, traditionally. Accounts of “the history of chai” like to make the connection between modern masala chai and an ancient Ayurvedic drink, but in reality, that drink was primarily made from the spices that we associate with masala chai today, and did not include milk or tea leaves. But when the British production of tea in India began to reach large-scale economic viability, the primarily native-Indian workforce in factories and fields were seen as a potential new market.

Tea stalls were set up to sell tea to workers and Indian tea culture started to follow British tea culture — i.e., with lots of milk and sugar. But the sellers, called chaiwallahs, had little tricks to both stretch their tea leaves and appeal to the native Indian palate. They boiled the leaves, allowing them to get a stronger brew out of less leaf, or even using previously-steeped leaves, to save money on the expensive tea. The addition of spices and sugar also added flavor to the beverage without using the more expensive ingredient.

But the introduction of tea into the Indian diet was meant as a way to earn more money for the tea companies (similarly to how Henry Ford pushed for weekends off work so workers could become consumers and increase company profits), as well as a way to “civilize” them in the British fashion. So organizations, like the Indian Tea Association (ITA), which was founded in the late 19th century to protect the interests of colonizer tea plantation owners, started pushing for rules about “purity” of the tea sold by chaiwallahs, playing on the fears of adulturation that were common at the time. Excessive sugar and spices were considered “adulturants” and only allowed in approved quantities, or not at all.

After World War I, when British tea consumption faltered, there was more of a push to both encourage the consumption of “Empire-Grown Tea” in the British Isles (which led to the xenophobic advertising I mentioned in my post about the feminization of tea in Britain), as well as in India. But this time, the native Indians were organizing under the leadership of Mohandas Gandhi to oppose British rule, and were thinking negatively about how the British commodities, like sugar, bread, and tea, had worked their way into Indian life. Gandhi himself wrote in his book The Key to Health that the tannins in tea were unhealthy and praised tea as only being healthful in the milk and sugar it contained.

So perhaps Gandhi would have smiled upon the current trend of using other bases besides tea in beverages called “chai” like turmeric chai or rooibos chai. But the main takeaway is that the chaiwallahs, while they probably did not think of their act as a protest, birthed a drink that showed how adding back Indian flavor into a drink pushed upon them by their colonizers could create not only a delicious beverage, but one that largely spat in the eye of the same organization that tried to capitalize on them by using a method that conserved as much of that expensive tea as possible.

Similarly to yoga, which was codified in its modern incarnation as a way to encourage native Indian strength and nationalism, only to be appropriated and watered down into white popular culture, so too has chai been removed from its context. While a barista can make a perfectly drinkable beverage from steamed milk and a “chai” concentrate without ever having to look at a tea leaf or a ginger rhizome, the real masala chai is boiled, pulled, and served up with a healthy does of resistance.

For anyone who is curious, my chai is made with ginger, cardamom, black peppercorns, cinnamon, Assam tea from Calabash Tea and Tonic, jaggery, water, and coconut milk. The cup is from Ivy’s Tea Co.

NB: Nothing to disclose. If you are interested in collaborating with me, please read my collaboration information for more details, but you should know that if you want to sponsor a “Difficult History” post, the bar will be high.

Tea Together Tuesday: Mug Shot

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Today on Tea Together Tuesday, a delightful community tea prompt hosted by Tea with Jann and Tea is a Wish, the prompt is to share your “mug shot” or your favorite tea in your favorite mug. Well, I don’t really play favorites with my tea, but my mugs are another thing. So this morning, I’m sharing the tea I drink most often in the mug that has been part of my tea journey for a long time.

Most mornings, especially since we started isolating at home in March, I make myself a pot of stovetop masala chai as my first breakfast. It’s light for my first-thing-in-the-morning stomach, but it provides a little hit of energy after a long fast since dinner and perhaps an early morning yoga practice. It’s warming and soothing, so even in summer, the mornings feel cool enough to want that bit of coziness. And after an invigorating yoga practice, when I’ve built some heat in my body, I don’t want to throw a bunch of cold water into my stomach right away.

So I generally rise with the sun (or before!) and do my yoga, perhaps a bit of meditation, maybe take some time to myself to check social media or read a book. And I make a pot of masala chai, which I often pour into what I call my Ithaca mug. I got it from a local potter’s stall at the farmers market when I was in college and first lived on my own in a one-bedroom apartment that teetered over the edge of Cascadilla Gorge. Back then, I made my morning coffee while looking out over the gorge in the morning and drank it out of this mug, or I would make a cup of peppermint tea in the evenings to sip after dinner from the mug.

To me, it symbolizes my first steps towards adulthood and self-sufficiency. It reminds me of meals that I planned and prepared myself, and of days in my solitary apartment, something I didn’t experience again until seven years later when I divorced my first husband. The Ithaca mug represents my time in Ithaca, where I started learning who I am and how to be comfortable alone with that person. I learned the value of solitude in my life. And I learned the value of a morning routine, no matter how small.

Of course, on a more utilitarian note, the mug is big. It can easily hold 12 oz. of tea with plenty of extra room if I carry it back to the bedroom to sit with Elliot while my spouse takes a shower. It’s a heavy, handmade mug, and it’s bottom-heavy, so it’s difficult to spill. I’ve dropped it more times than I remember and it has survived. And the top being slightly narrower than the base helps keep things hot longer.

Unlike most of my teaware, this mug gets washed in the dishwasher, or with soap. This is not a mug for tasting small amounts of a fine tea. It is a mug for a builder’s brew or a cup of strong coffee. It is a mug to comfort and sustain. So when I make my masala chai for it, I make it strong. I boil together Assam, my current favorite being from Calabash Tea and Tonic (of course if you like your tea and spices pre-blended, Calabash’s Love Potion #10 is also excellent when I’m not in the mood to prepare my own spices), lots of spices, some brown sugar, and some coconut milk, along with the water. I make sure it simmers for at least five minutes, usually more. It makes an eye-opening brew, and this mug is perfect for it.

What does your daily mug or cuppa look like?

NB: Nothing to declare. If you are interested in collaborating, please see my collaboration and contact information.

Tuesday Tasting: Tea Sparrow October 2019 Tea Box

NB: Tea Sparrow sent me their October box for free in exchange for posting a tasting. All thoughts are my own. Links are not affiliate links.

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This week, I’m sharing a bit of a different tasting. While I generally drink unflavored pure teas and often taste my teas gong fu style, I am a firm believer in evaluating teas on their own terms rather than trying to shoe-horn different teas into gongfucha. I was recently contacted by Tea Sparrow, a company that sells subscription tea boxes. Most of their teas are flavored, but everything is organic and natural and they use biodegradable packaging, so I was intrigued to try. Plus, I know plenty of my readers are not necessarily solely interested in drinking fussy pure teas and might appreciate knowing about some good flavored teas. They sent me their October box, which included two caffeine-free herbal teas, a flavored green tea, and a flavored black tea, so I thought I would do my tasting using their brewing parameters.

But of course, this isn’t a review; this is a tasting. So I still made sure to check aroma and look of the “leaf” at various points during the brewing. And I made a point to really roll the flavors around in my mouth, the way I would with any other tea. Let’s see how the October teas do with a full tea tasting.

Pina Colada Green Tea

I will admit, when I saw this tea, my first thought was

Anyone who reads this blog knows that not only am I not usually a fan of flavored teas, but “dessert-y” type flavors like this are at the bottom of my list of likes (top of my list of dislikes?). But this is a tasting, not a review, so here we go.

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Right off, I could smell the coconut through the package, and it had an almost sunscreen-y aroma, but as soon as I opened it and poured it out into a warmed teapot, the scent became this rich, very true coconut aroma. It’s actually a very warm scent, which is odd for what I thought would be a summery tea. The dry green tea is medium olive-ish green and has moderately small, straight and flat leaves. It almost looks like a Japanese green tea (or a Chinese green processed like a Japanese tea?). There are also pieces of sugared pineapple and flakes of toasted coconut. I tasted one of the pineapple pieces and it’s sweet and has taken on the coconut flavor.

I first steeped this tea using one tablespoon, which was 4.8g, in a 250-ml glass teapot with 180 F water for two minutes, as per the instructions. The wet leaf had an almost savory aroma and the liquor was pale gold with a light coconut aroma. The dominant flavor was green tea, with noticeable umami and a lightly astringent finish. The coconut was an undertone to the flavor, with no noticeable sweetness and a surprisingly warm flavor.

Out of curiosity, I took the same leaves and cold-brewed them for three hours. The cold-brewed liquor was buttery and fragrant with a more pronounced fruity flavor.

Organic Vanilla Mint Rooibos

They are not kidding when they say this tea is “peppermint forward.” Again, I could smell the peppermint through the package. The dry leaf is an obvious blend of rooibos and dried peppermint leaf. The dry leaf smells strongly of peppermint, but the addition of vanilla and rooibos adds a rich depth that reminded me of a York peppermint patty. In my notes, I put a parenthetical that it “clears your sinuses.”

I used one tablespoon, which was 4.4g, in a 12-oz. mug with boiling water for five minutes. The liquor is a deep reddish brown and has a distinct aroma of each individual component, rather than blasting your sinuses with menthol like the wet and dry leaf. Peppermint is still the strongest flavor and it is a menthol-y peppermint, not a green peppermint flavor. Rooibos is the second most prominent with a rich woody flavor and the vanilla is subtle and reads as chocolate to my tastebuds, without that weird artificial vanilla flavor that happens with vanilla-flavored teas.

Organic Crimson Currants

This was the first tea I tried from the box, the day it came, as my evening cup. I like to unwind with a warm beverage after I put Elliot to bed, and I get tired of lavender-chamomile. This is a blend of dried fruit, rosehips (which are also a fruit), rooibos, and lemongrass. You can see all the components in the dry “leaf.”

I steeped one tablespoon, which was 6.5g, in 250 ml of boiling water for five minutes. The liquor is a deep crimson color and has an almost thick look to it as it pours. It has the same fruity aroma as the dry leaf. I made a note that it looks like stage blood (corn syrup and red food coloring)! The first flavor that hits you is tart, probably from the rosehips and hibiscus. It’s a thicker tartness than hibiscus usually gives, but without the sickly, almost tomato-y flavor I sometimes get from rosehips. It has a syrupy mouthfeel but no actual sweet favor. There is a little bit of lemon-candy flavor from the lemongrass. The berries are very subtle and I didn’t taste any rooibos from this at all. My final note is that “this tea is what ‘Red Zinger’ wants to be.”

Organic Masala Chai

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This, I tasted both plain and with milk and honey, since masala chai is actually a drink made with tea, not just a tea, so the traditional drink involves dairy and sweetener. The dry leaf shows a lot of whole spices like clove and cardamom among the very typical-looking Indian tea leaves. I can definitely smell the cinnamon flavoring, as it had strong, sweet cinnamon scent, like Ceylon cinnamon, but the ginger is also present as a base note to the dry leaf aroma.

To start off, I brewed one tablespoon, which was 5.9g, in 250 ml of boiling water for five minutes. The liquor “smells like Christmas,” according to my notes. There is a strong cinnamon aroma. Interestingly enough, the flavor is not overly cinnamon-y. The ginger comes through nicely and I get a little of the cardamom. It has a spicy finish, but the dominant flavor is from the Assam, with a big malt flavor, currant notes, and not too much tannin.

Adding honey to it brought out the cinnamon, and milk brings out an almost chocolatey quality. I also re-steeped this with boiling water for five minutes, giving it a little stir, and found that the ginger and cardamom were more pronounced, even when I added honey.

So there are my tastings of the four teas that came in the Tea Sparrow October 2019 box. And if you like flavored teas and are interested in trying a box, or buying any of these teas on their web store, you can use the code “TeaLeavesandTweed” on their site for a 20% discount on your first order or your first month of the subscription.

The Tea Primer: Bonus Levels (Matcha and Masala Chai)

Hello, again! While I ended the main tea primer with Level Three’s superficial introduction to gong fu brewing, I thought I’d return with two “bonus level” techniques. While I’m not a tea expert by any means, I have had first-hand teaching in two specific traditional preparations of tea: Japanese matcha and Indian masala chai. So I thought I’d share a little bit about how I incorporate these techniques into my own tea practices when I want something a little different than just leaves steeped in water.

Matcha:

Matcha is a type of ground green tea powder that is used in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. The most authentic forms of matcha are made from tencha tea leaves that have been shaded for at least a few weeks to force the tea to concentrate some of its chemical constituents to produce a brighter green color and a richer umami flavor. It is made from a variety of green tea known as tencha. For more about traditional matcha production, I really like this overview from Ippodo.

Because the processing leads to high concentrations of certain chemical constituents, matcha has gained a reputation as a health superfood in recent years. Unfortunately, that means that there is a lot of subpar matcha on the market being sold as a supplement. Matcha is also used in baking, lattes, and other recipes, which mutes subtle flavors, so typically “culinary grade” matcha is used for these purposes. While good culinary grade matcha is absolutely drinkable on its own, it does not compare to the experience of a really nice bowl of matcha, prepared traditionally.

Personally, my favorite matcha comes from Ippodo. Since their products ship from Japan, the international shipping can be a bit steep, but if you buy a few different things, the value is still pretty good for the quality you’re getting. I tend to mention which specific matcha I’m drinking on my Instagram profile, usually for Matcha Monday. And I will use a good-quality matcha in a latte, mostly because I tend not to add much sweetener, so as to let the flavor of the matcha come through.

But matcha is primarily known for being the tea used in the Japanese tea ceremony. I’m fortunate enough to live in a city where there is an active society for the preservation and teaching of the Japanese tea ceremony. I visited the Washington DC Chado Urasenke Tankokai last year and chronicled my experience of a private demonstration and lesson in the Japanese tea ceremony, and I thought I’d share how this experience has informed my preparation of matcha.

When I make a bowl of matcha at home, I don’t follow the whole tea ceremony. Obviously, the ceremony is an inherently social, service-oriented practice, so making a bowl of matcha for myself is not the same. But I do observe some of the procedures.

First, I make sure to set out all my tools carefully before I begin. I heat my water, usually to 180 F because it will cool upon being poured out into another vessel. My first step is to pour some water into my chawan (or matcha bowl) and whisk it with my chasen (matcha whisk) a few times to moisten the whisk. Then, I empty the water from my bowl and wipe it with a cloth I use only for preparing and cleaning up after matcha. The next step is to measure out my matcha. Because I only sift matcha as needed, I place my sifter over my chawan and measure out two scoops of matcha with my chashaku (matcha scoop) and use the chashaku to gently push the matcha through the sifter. I remove the sifter and measure out two ounces of hot water in a separate cup. This, I pour over the matcha in the chawan and whisk. I whisk with a back-and-forth motion for about 15-30 seconds, until a nice froth has appeared. Then, I make a few slow circles to help break up larger bubbles.

Now it is time to savor my matcha. I like to sit in silence and enjoy my matcha, focusing on it entirely. It is a small amount, so it doesn’t take a long time, but I do roll it around in my mouth and appreciate the complex flavors. Some matchas are quite umami, or savory, in flavor, while others have varying degrees of floral, tart, or vegetal flavors.

Once I’ve finished my bowl of matcha, I clean up. This comes from my past Zen practice and the koan “Wash Your Bowl”. I take my empty matcha bowl back to the kettle, pour in some hot water, swish the whisk around in it to wash off the matcha, and then put it on the whisk stand to dry with the tines facing down so that water doesn’t run into the handle and mold. The stand also helps to keep the shape of the whisk. I empty out the chawan and wipe it with my cloth. I also wipe off the chashaku and sifter, after tapping off excess powder. Then, everything goes back into the tea cabinet. I never leave my matcha tools out, even though I’m rather bad about leaving out my other tea tools.

In this way, making a bowl of matcha becomes a meditative activity as well as a morning beverage. I don’t know if it is the theanine in matcha that makes my mornings feel brighter and calmer, or if this small meditation puts me in a good frame of mind, but my mornings that start with matcha are almost always calmer and more productive.

If you’re interested in learning more about traditional matcha, I highly recommend looking for a Chado society near you. And I give a list of matcha tools that I use on a regular basis in the information box below this video (which also shows my matcha preparation).

Masala Chai:

When I was fresh out of graduate school and freshly divorced, I moved around a lot, often living in shared houses. In one of these houses, I lived with an Indian woman and her husband. Every morning, one of them would wake up early and make masala chai. Masala chai means “mixed-spice tea” (fun fact: “chai” just means “tea,” so the Western habit of referring to spiced tea as just “chai” is somewhat like the habit of calling a caffe latte a “latte,” which in Italy just refers to plain milk) and is a blend of black tea with various spices. According to my housemate, it is made and served at all hours of the day and her family is always up for tea.

Traditionally, masala chai is often made by boiling spices and tea in milk, but my method involves preparing the tea with only water, since my housemate was lactose intolerant and would let everyone choose their own form of milk or milk substitute. So this is her method, which I quite enjoy.

First, she would put a cinnamon stick, some cardamom pods, some black peppercorns, and maybe a couple cloves or allspice berries (I prefer allspice because cloves can easily overwhelm the other spices) in a mortar and pestle and hit them a few times just to crack the pepper, break up the cinnamon, and open the cardamom pods. These would go into a small saucepan, along with a few slices of fresh ginger. This would be covered with water and brought to a boil, and then simmered for at least fifteen minutes (sometimes it would simmer for longer, as the did other things to get ready for the day). Then, she would turn off the heat and add a couple spoonfuls of loose-leaf black tea. She used loose-leaf Tetley that her family would send her from India, but I generally recreate this with a loose-leaf Assam tea. This would steep for about five minutes, and then get strained into mugs. Each person can add milk and sweetener as desired. She liked almond milk and stevia, while I usually used whole milk and honey. A very traditional way to sweeten it would be to add jaggery, which is an Indian unrefined sugar, but as it comes in lumps, it generally has to be boiled with the spices to fully dissolve.

The nice thing about masala chai is that it doesn’t require much in the way of fancy ingredients. I can get all the spices I use in the grocery store, and it generally works out well with any strong black tea. Inexpensive “English breakfast” tea blends often use strong Indian teas, so if you can’t find Assam, any English breakfast tea should work. While the tools may seem daunting, I have made this tea by smashing my spices on a cutting board with a heavy jar (it remains my favorite use for coconut oil), rather than using a mortar and pestle, and if you have a tea infuser mug, you can use the infuser to strain the tea if you don’t have a small strainer.

I will say that I’m not a fan of pre-blended loose-leaf masala chai. If I had to choose one, I would probably go with Rishi’s, because they use the most cardamom, which is my favorite, but I find that with pre-blended masala chai, you don’t get enough spice flavor before the tea is oversteeped and unpleasant. They’re nice in a pinch, but if I’m going to indulge, I do it properly by boiling the spices separately.

So those are my two “bonus levels” of tea. Perhaps in the future, I’ll expand this primer, so let me know in the comments if there are more tea topics you’d like me to cover!

NB: I have not been provided any incentive to mention any of the shops or products mentioned in this post.