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There’s only so much you can do to tea. You can put milk in it. And you can put sugar in it. You can even call it chai. But it’s still tea.

Coffee houses all over town are selling a slight variation on tea as if it were a newfound spiritual elixir. “Pacific Chai…If You Haven’t Had It, You Haven’t Had It,” bellows a sign in a Northwest cafe. “You’ve gotta try our chai,” asserts a counterman at Dupont Circle’s Teaism. Chai, the Hindi word for tea, even hit the Washingtonian’s What’s Hot column for 1998 and merited a recent feature in the Washington Post Food section. “It’s all the buzz (and good for one as well),” waxed Walter Nicholls about the mélange of milk, tea, sugar, and spice. “Around the Circle, it’s coffee’s biggest competitor.”

A native product of India, masallah chai tea first hit the U.S. during the 1960s, when those seeking enlightenment in India would return with, if nothing else, a new beverage. Michelle Brown, co-owner of Teaism, the store perhaps most responsible for the trend in D.C., says that hippies first made the tea trend “popular in Colorado and Santa Cruz….That’s why sometimes it’s called ‘yogi tea.’”

Brown calls it “tea’s answer to the cappuccino.” “We’re the first business that set out to promote it aggressively,” says Brown, alluding to the crush of local cafes offering the product. (Even Starbucks is reportedly test-marketing the stuff.) “It’s our No. 1 seller….It sort of fulfills all your needs in the morning: your caffeine need, need for something sweet; the milk helps with hunger, and the spice makes it romantic.”

That’s exactly what Third World laborers have been saying for ages. Chris Haber, a television producer who has spent most of the last six years living in Kenya, Tanzania, and South Africa, says chai is a commodity, not a luxury, in east Africa. “It’s one part tea, five parts milk and sugar,” says Haber. “It’s overloaded. It’s served five times a day to people working in various low-level working-class jobs, to poor Africans and Asians, just to keep them going while they work. [It’s] like porridge….It’s anything but chic.”

Chai, Haber notes, is also called Indian railway tea, a reference to the influx of Indians used by British colonialists to build railroads in Africa. And in African countries, chai is also coffee’s biggest competitor, sort of. “If a worker has been successful and has enjoyed some upward mobility,” says Haber, “one of the first things done to indicate his new status is he’s given coffee. He no longer is at chai level.”

The notion that chai has become D.C.’s latest coffee house trends draws a chuckle from John Scully, editor of an international environmental journal headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya. “This vaguely ridiculous information has opened up a world of potential business opportunities to me,” says Scully.

“Just off the top of my head: mkate, a popular local accompaniment to chai,” muses Scully. “Mkate is an enchanting mix of bleached white flour leached of all essential nutrients, fat, yeast, salt, and sugar—baked into airy fluff. Americans may already know this dish by the more mundane ‘bread,’…but I figure Washington trendoids won’t be able to resist.” Mkate, anyone?CP