Running on Chai

You’ve probably had a chai latte at your favorite coffee shop in the United States, but India elevates chai to a whole new level. Use Google Translate and you’ll find that “tea” translates from English to Hindi as चाय or “chai.” But in India, chai is more than just a generic word for tea. It’s a specific kind of tea and it’s not only a beverage – it’s an experience of flavor, warmth and community.

Watch me order a cup of chai in Hindi:

Today I need to get a gas cylinder for the stovetop at our new apartment. My mind is focused on accomplishing this task! I am determined to find the shop, submit the appropriate paperwork, pay for the cylinder and have it delivered so we can start making meals at home. The plan is clear. After a bit of searching, I find the shop nearer to our apartment than expected – check! I have the correct paperwork with me – check! “Would you like a cup of chai?” says the man as he processes my paperwork in a leisurely manner. Oh sure, I guess a cup of chai couldn’t hurt anything, “yes” I reply.

He sends someone to get the chai and a few minutes later it arrives on a tray. I decide to let it cool for a minute to avoid burning my mouth. But even with the delightful aroma in front of me, my mind isn’t really on the chai, it’s still on the transaction. The next step is payment and I don’t have enough cash with me. I ask where the nearest ATM is, not wanting my plans of completing this task to be deterred. He tells me where the ATM is located and I start to proceed in that direction. “Please, finish your chai first” he says kindly, extending his hand in the direction of the chai. This simple statement is enough to snap me out of “task-mode” – here is an opportunity to relax and simply enjoy a cup of chai with this guy.

We savor the chai, talk a little, sit silently, talk a little more, and as the tea is finished I proceed to the ATM with a new pace and mindset for the day. I withdraw the cash, return to the office to pay and the transaction is complete. The new cylinder will arrive in a few days. As I leave, I reflect on the fact that sharing a brief cup of chai didn’t derail my plans. And even if it had derailed my plans, that would have been ok, because no matter where you are in the world… people are more important than tasks!

So what exactly is chai? In its most elemental form, chai consists of Assam black tea steeped in hot water, with milk added for creaminess and sugar (usually lots of it!) added for sweetness. Beyond this, “masala chai” often includes some combination of the spices cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, star anise and even black pepper.

In India, you don’t have to go far to acquire a cup of chai. You can pay 60 rupees (approx $1 USD) for a “specialty” cup of chai at fine establishments like Chai Point and Chaayos, or visit the street-side stand of your local chai wallah to sip a piping hot cup for only 10 rupees. But really, the best cups of chai I’ve had are the free ones… the ones offered during “priceless” experiences of hospitality from friends and strangers alike. With a local tailor, bank employees, the guy at the gas cylinder shop, rock climbing friends, neighbors or co-workers – in India there’s always time to share a cup of chai.