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The rituals 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 home has its 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. Chai there is more of a lifestyle than a beverage. Everywhere you go — on buses, in shops, banks, offices, high end boutiques, and outside every train station — you will see people drinking, what we call in our Gujrati house, “cha.” “Chai” literally means “tea” in Hindi, which originates from “cha,” the Chinese word for tea.
Two tales of the origin of chai date back to approximately 5,000 (or according to some 9,000) years ago to an ancient royal court, either in 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 traveled to China to spread Buddhism. He was committed to staying awake during his nine–year mission, but nearing the end of his third year, he was exhausted, so he decided to pluck a few leaves off a tea shrub and eat them. The leaves gave him the strength to stay awake, so his followers started consuming tea as a stimulant.
The English cuppa tea
However, history credits the British for introducing tea to India. The British, who established the British East India Company, attempted 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. By 1900, this had reduced to 10% largely replaced by tea sourced in India and Ceylon.
Indians couldn’t afford black tea and so they modified their chai with milk, fresh ginger, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, black pepper, and other spices depending on the region. In many parts of 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 its own version, passed down from generation to generation.
You likely make your chai just the way your mom did. I did too, till about two 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. The husband somehow cobbled together meals. But the chai, well that was another story. We wanted it done the traditional way, but with work meetings, hubby couldn’t always make time for chai!
That’s when I discovered Monica Sunny, 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 aromatic blend of tea and spices, and it is so very convenient. Just heat, 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 last year it was part of the Everyone Wins nominee gift bags that went to the Oscar nominees in the top categories.
Chai Box offers premium, single-origin, spiced teas from small-scale farmers in India. Every blend is handcrafted in small batches by this family business that started in Atlanta.
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.
She remembers her grandparents in Punjab would wake up early, at 5 a.m. and make chai. It was much later that Sunny realized the value of this “me” time, and incorporated it into her daily life. She too wakes up early every day and immerses herself in the ritual of chai making, a time for reflection and quiet.
Chai in a dabba for the boys
She developed the Chai Box in a masala dabba for her three sons. Wanting to pass along the tradition to them, she filled the dabba with different chai blends, sugar and spices. 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 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. They would ask for the chai box and they would all enjoy tea time together. Sunny began to teach people how 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 -law 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
Serving: 2 Cups of Chai
- 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)
On the Stove (traditional Indian method of making chai):
- In a small saucepan, add water, cardamom, clove, cinnamon and fennel and bring to a boil.
- Add in True Blend loose leaf tea and simmer for 1-2 minutes.
- Add milk and bring it to a boil.
- Turn off the stove once the chai starts to bubble up.
- Use a strainer to strain ingredients when pouring chai into a tea cup.
- Add honey or sugar if desired.