Chai: A Hotly Contested Beverage

From India to England to America, chai has been both co-opted and faithfully adopted in the West.

Some days, San Francisco poet and educator Preeti Vangani drinks more chai than water.

“I can’t start my day without chai, and have been drinking it since I was 15 years old,” Vangani recently told SF Weekly. 

Vangani, who grew up in a middle-class family in Mumbai, says she likes to pinch pennies when she can. However, when it comes to chai, it’s hard for her to be frugal.

A good morning starts with a steamy cup from The Chai Cart or David Rio — both of which are on Market Street. She hasn’t lived in India for five years, but the spicy aromatic fragrance transports her from the dreary gray fog of San Francisco to the bustling, humid streets of her native city.

Vangani is not the only San Franciscan — or American, for that matter — with strong ties to this storied drink. Over the course of Vangani’s lifetime, the chai-drinking customs of the country where she was born have been both faithfully recreated and commercially co-opted in her adoptive homeland.

As the local economy rebounds from a year of pandemic, conversations around systemic inequality — stemming from the killing of George Floyd and a rash violent attacks against Asian Americans — are spurring many to interrogate the world of food with the same rigor previously reserved for issues such as race and class. And Vangani’s drink of choice has not escaped scrutiny.

What Is Chai?

It’s safe to assume that many Americans familiar with chai first sampled the beverage at a local Starbucks, which has served its own fast-food take on the drink for more than two decades. Baristas at the international coffee chain’s 32,646 stores crank them out at a rapid clip, pumping premade concentrate from plastic jugs into paper cups and stirring in hot water or steamed milk. But the drink’s history stretches back centuries before Howard Schultz opened his flagship store on Seattle’s bustling Pike Place Market.

The etymology of the word “chai” can be traced to Chinese, Persian, and Indian words for tea. Thousands of years before Westerners began dunking dried tea leaves in hot water for a jolt of caffeine, the plant was cultivated in India, Myanmar, Tibet, and China, where it was incorporated into herbal medicines and consumed for its stimulating effects. It is a traditional Indian preparation of black, green, or rooibos tea — mixed with aromatic spices — that we now commonly refer to as chai.

Sana Javeri Kadri, founder of Diaspora Co., has plenty of thoughts on chai’s history. According to Kadri, the chai most Westerners know today originated in India and is inextricably linked to  colonization. The British saw the local concoction as both a tasty pick-me-up and a global business opportunity. Tea ultimately would become one of the most profitable commodities of the East India Trading Company and serve as a motivating force behind the English settlement of India and subjugation of its people.

Though she originally launched Diaspora Co. in 2016 as a turmeric sourcing company, Kadri also has used her brand to draw attention to the destructive legacy of colonialism and cultural appropriation. “We were oppressed,” Kadri says, referring to the British occupation and exploitation of India. “And we should be paid for it.”

In an upcoming virtual event — “At The Table: Building a Better Spice Trade,” scheduled for July 1 at the Asian Art Museum — Kadri will elaborate and help attendees unpack the complex histories of some of the world’s most popular flavors.  

What Is Authentic?

Jesse Jacobs, owner and founder of Samovar teas, grew up steeped in tea culture. Raised in a commune on the East Coast, he says he and his family were surrounded by global traditions, which he believes has imbued him with a multicultural worldview. He considers Samovar to be an international business. 

“India, Japan, China, South Africa, England. All of them, except for Americans, have a tea culture,” Jacobs says, explaining his reasoning. The way he sees it, Samovar — which he started in 2004 after burning out of a career in big tech — is his way of sharing his love of tea with the wider world.

Jacobs first glimpsed an opportunity to pay it forward in the mid-2000s. Third wave coffee was taking off, and the farm-to-table movement was ascendant — but according to him, there was a serious vacuum when it came to tea offerings in San Francisco.

“I felt there was a need for it,” he says of founding Samovar. “A place to go to connect over amazing tea.”

In his quest to source and sell the world’s best tea, Jacobs spent two months in Mysore, India, studying chaiwalas, folks who make and sell chai. Back home, Jacobs consulted with friends of Indian descent (including Anjan Mitra, the owner of the now-defunct Dosa) who fiddled with his recipe, pushing and pulling until it felt, to them, authentic.

“Everyone has different recipes,” Jacobs said. “I didn’t make anything up. I simply designed our own recipe using the classic ingredients that make it special.”

Jacobs says he is never asked about his cultural credit, or whether he is the guy to be serving chai in San Francisco. “The only thing that comes up is people say, ‘This is the only chai that is better than my grandmother’s.’ We do it authentically, truly just like they do on the streets of India,” he says, describing his method of simmering each batch of tea for over an hour — drawing out rich flavors and generating a cloud of free advertising as the aromas float down Valencia, Fillmore, and Yerba Buena.

Set against the backdrop of the past year and a half — and given that India remains in the grips of a devastating surge of COVID-19 — Jacobs’ confidence is certainly ripe for a social media skewering.

A former tech worker who had the luxury of dropping out of the rat race to travel the world, absorb the traditions of another culture, and turn a profit? He’s practically asking to get dragged by legions of #woke Twitterati — especially when he has the nerve to claim the mantle of grandma-level authenticity.

However, the fact that Samovar has survived for more than 15 years in a town where independent businesses regularly struggle to even get off the ground speaks to the popularity of his product.

Who Decides?

Mboone Umbima, vice president of brand strategy for David Rio, which has been serving chai to San Franciscans since 1996, says her company does its best to stay faithful to tradition through its hiring practices. About 70 percent of the staff at the company’s Chai Bar at 1019 Market St. hail from chai drinking-countries.

David Rio also has a strong commitment to environmental and animal stewardship, Mboone adds. “Our chai has to be good for people and good for the planet,” she says. 

Ultimately, however, it will be customers who decide which chai shops survive in San Francisco. And sometimes, meeting customer demand involves breaking with tradition.

Kadri enjoys her own chai with oat milk — the same way Samovar prepares it. It’s not strictly traditional, or in keeping with her grandmother’s recipe, but that’s OK, she says. Chai, after all, is not a monolith.

Furthermore, even those who profess to be actively seeking authenticity aren’t always focused on the identity or personal background of those producing their drink. Some are more interested in the ingredients and methods behind the brew.

In her critique of local chai, for example, Vangani insists that many shops don’t get the balance of ginger, cinnamon, and lemongrass right. Or worse, they “work off of liquid concentrates, giving the drink a synthetic flavor. … The real way to make chai is brewing loose tea leaves in boiling water with spices and adding milk” — two points to Samovar.

At the end of the day, Kadri says she doesn’t want to be some kind of chai gatekeeper, and recognizes that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of variations on chai. From the fanatics like Vangani to those who found their way to chai from a New England commune, Kadri just wants people to understand where this drink comes from.

“It’s not to say that folks who grew up without a cultural connection to turmeric shouldn’t be allowed to use it,” she says. “It’s more about honoring where it comes from.”

For it’s part, Diaspora Co. honors the cultural roots of all its spices by working with producers it deems to be ethical, based upon a framework Kadri developed with the Indian Council of Agricultural Research. Beyond giving credit where credit is due, Kadri says that recognizing the heritage and history of culinary traditions and other cultural exports is about putting your money where your mouth is — literally — and to date Diaspora Co. has raised about $300,000 for COVID-19 relief efforts in India.

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