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I know that this may seem a little nitpicky, but I feel the need to rush to the defense of chai and clarify some things. Unfortunately, I missed Jake Tapper’s article on it (“Bye Bye Miss American Chai,” 1/23), but I read the letter in reply by Joseph McKenna of Adams Morgan (The Mail, 2/20). Here’s the real deal:
I think you’re giving Washingtonians too much credit by implying that we somehow have a need to refer to tea as chai as a way of bolstering our sophistication. Anyone who has ever tasted the chai sold in coffee shops in this area knows it’s a lot more than tea. It’s tea, spices, steamed milk, and, often, vanilla, boiled and simmered and steamed. Chai is its traditional name. When you go to an Indian food store, you can buy chai masala and make it yourself at home (albeit with some elbow grease).
The first time I ever tasted chai was in China, where a fellow exchange student from India and I would have tea time every day. We were a little short on supplies in China, and I tasted the real deal while in Hong Kong at one of the many Indian restaurants on the island. When I went back to Shanghai, I asked my friend what manner of tasty brew had been given to me in Hong Kong, she said it was called “chai” and that when I got back to the States I could buy a masala made just for it. I did and have been enjoying it ever since.
I rejoiced at chai’s insurgence onto the coffee house scene. I am not a coffee drinker and always felt dumb ordering Earl Grey, which I just as easily could have made at home for several dollars less. Making chai is a much more complex process than making just plain tea, and I’m content to just stop by Starbucks or the Cup’a Cup’a in my building and pick up a cup.
So, really, chai is not just plain tea. “Tea infused with spices and mixed with steamed milk” is a bit of a mouthful when ordering, and I’ll continue using the word that my Indian friend taught me so many years ago. Washington is absurd in many more important ways than what we call
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