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“Chai Tea” and other oddities

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on January 25, 2012 No Comment

“What is Chai Tea?” I wondered, flabbergasted: “It makes no sense! Chai=tea. Tea tea? And it’s supposed to be Indian?”

chaitea

Now, I take pride in knowing my teas: I come from a land where tea is the preferred beverage, ubiquitous in the national beverage-scape. Tea was incorporated into my breakfast routine at an early age (with some noisy reluctance on the part of my mother, and intractable insistence on my part), and I’ve had a steamy cup of Darjeeling warm my senses nearly every morning since early childhood. One of my fondest childhood memories revolves around getting hot elaichi ( cardamom) chai at train stations. Tea-sellers would rapidly enter the compartments or yell “chai garam” (hot tea) through open windows, the moment a train arrived at a station. Usually for Rs 2 (in a different era-I’m not sure how inflation has affected railway tea costs), you would hold in your hands the most deliciously steaming, perfectly brewed fragrant chai swirling around in an earthen mug. Bliss, especially during cold, wintry journeys.

Imagine my surprise the first time I encountered the phrase, when a fancied up version of this was served up as “Indian Chai Tea” special at a local cafe several years ago in Chico, California. Since that fateful day, I’ve bitten my tongue every time I’ve encountered it in lettering or in a cup. Until now, Indians generally use “chai” as the generic term for tea; if one calls a drink “chai tea,” one is needlessly reduplicating the word, for no reason obvious to me. The Wikipedia entry actually redirects to Masala Chai, and there’s this line embedded in the larger text: “The redundant chai tea is sometimes used to indicate spiced milk tea as distinct from other types of tea.” If the point was to set it apart, wouldn’t simply settling for the word “chai” be a sufficient differentiating move?

I didn’t really let it get to me too much until a recent trip to NY, when I got so riled up, I vented on Facebook about my disgust with the redundancies in the phrases “chai tea” and “dal soup.” Dal is not typically consumed as a “soup” in India, but you couldn’t go to many (North) Indian restaurants in America where dal is not listed under soup. But, in North India, dal is generally consumed with your entree-it’s actually part of it. (Of course, I’m generalizing broadly, since there are pockets in India in which you would consume dal as shorba or rassam at the start of the meal: however, they are not the versions offered in Indian restaurants here in the U.S.).

That particular Facebook thread kind of erupted, with friends offering other redundancies. There was “naan bread,” “pakora fritters,” “chutney sauce” and a longer debate about the term “curry.” Before I turn to the last term, the interesting point of the duplications is that the Indian (often Hindi) word is followed by the (loose) English “translation.” What is inexplicable is that English routinely consumes different words from other languages without forever coupling them eternally with their “translations”; why are Indian terms exempt from this general rule? Why can’t Indian culinary vocabulary imports be standalones? Finally, the term “curry”: umm, Most Indians use the word sparingly. To me, 99.99% of the times, curry means only one thing: a gravy dish made of Indian chickpea flour. For the odd occasion, I’d refer to “malai curry” or “chicken curry” but that’s pretty much it. Basically, it’s a word that is a generic term used to describe particular gravied South Asian and South East Asian dishes. Anyone who’s lived in either places (or both, as in my case) would recognize that that’s quite…ahem…a category.

Republished with permission from the Times of India (Click here for the original article).

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