Around the world, masala chai is considered one of the symbols of Indian cuisine. It is for me: I grew up watching my grandmother Motiben make masala chai several times a day. The process felt so steeped in tradition: the order she added the ingredients, the bhajans, or Hindu prayers, she would chant while it simmered, beautiful and hypnotic-sounding. Just one sip of that spicy-sweet tea takes me straight to India. And yet, history shows it is anything but a traditional Indian drink. Masala chai was only invented a few years before Motiben was born, around the 1920s, and all because Queen Victoria was a cheapskate.
First, a quick history lesson: From the 1600s to 1857, the British East India Company went from trading in India to ruling it. They did fun things like wage wars, make officer brutality against Indians legal, and took Indian gold and precious stones as “taxes.” Unsurprisingly, Indians hated it and rebelled. From 1857 to 1858, the First War of Indian Independence was waged by the British Indian Army (made up of Indian Hindus and Muslims). So Queen Victoria decided to take control of India, and the British Raj ruled from 1858 to 1947. That’s almost 350 years of some type of British rule.
Diana Rosen, author of Chai: The Spice Tea of India, believes that British greed was the catalyst for masala chai. The British loved tea from China. But China would only trade tea for silver, and Queen Victoria was a penny-pincher. So she started growing tea in Britain’s biggest colony, India, in the 1820s. In her book, Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, Lizzie Collingham explains that tea plantations were just another way for the British to exploit Indian labor. If the unsanitary boat trip to the plantations didn’t kill the peasants hired, their new homes did. Many contracted malaria, which enlarged their spleens, so when their employers beat them (an unfortunately frequent occurrence), their spleen would rupture, killing them. By the 1861, the British were regularly selling tea. To speed up distribution of tea and their other commodities, they built the country’s first railway in the 1880s.
But as late as 1900, most Indians did not drink tea. Tea and its paraphernalia (teapots, china, sugar bowls) were too expensive. In 1901, the Indian Tea Association decided that to make more money, they needed Indians to drink tea too. As Helen Saberi writes in Tea: A Global History, the association was created to develop and grow the tea industry, and they created an incredibly immersive advertising campaign to win Indians over. They set up vendors to sell tea at major railway stations. Around the first World War (1914-1918), they set up tea stalls outside of factories, cotton mills and coal mines, and convinced employers to give Indians a mandatory tea break every day. They set up tea shops in towns across the country, and Indian tea vendors (known as chai wallahs) started selling outside of the shops.
This is when masala chai started appearing. The chai wallahs wanted to stand out from the crowd, so they started adding spices to their tea, like black pepper, cardamom and ginger. Each chai wallah became known for their special masala, or spice mix. But masala tea used less tea leaves, which the Tea Association hated. So they sent their own tea vendors to compete with the chai wallahs. To little avail—Indians preferred their tea milky and spicy. Collingham explained that ancient Ayurvedic texts recommended boiling water with sour curds, sugar, black pepper and cardamom for colds, and drinks made from spiced buttermilk or yogurt (known as lassis) were already popular across India. So when the British gave them this milky sweet tea, adding spices was an obvious next step. By the 1950s, tea drinking and masala chai was a common habit across India, and it remains so to this day.
In the hands of the British, tea divided India. Indians already had a caste system when the British arrived, a system of social stratification that dictated career paths and dining partners. The British reinforced these separations, which allowed communalism to thrive in India. For example, they divided tea stalls into two sides: one for Hindus, and one for Muslims. But in the hands of Indians, as Collingham argues, tea helped break down social divisions originally set by the caste system. Tea was considered a foreign food, which meant it did not have any restrictions on who could consume it. Indians of different castes could sit in public drinking tea together, which had never happened before. And in that way, Indians turned tea from a symbol of British imperialism into a new, homegrown tradition. Now that same cup of milky tea is not just a hand-me-down from rulers gone by, but a ritual that many INdians, like my grandmother, make all their own.