Identity, Food, Life

Chai is more than just a cup of tea – it’s a world of memories, stolen moments, and family

Just one cup holds memories of family, friends, stolen moments in a mosque parking lot, and a lifetime of communion in a desi household.

A cup of chai is more than just a cup of spicy leaf water for those in the desi community.

It’s drinking chai from delicate china at a dawat that your mother dragged you to when you’d rather just be at home reading Children of the Corn.

Steam from the cup fogging up your brand-new prescription glasses as aunties coddle you with, “Mashallah, how tall she’s grown!” and maybe a little of, “She’s put on a little weight, na?”

Chai is more than just a cup of spicy leaf water. Click To Tweet

Perhaps it’s that extra teaspoon (or three) of sugar as you try to awkwardly make small talk with the girls whose shiny salwars remind you of the days that you all used to choreograph Bollywood dance numbers together.

Or the aftertaste that lingers long after you’ve nodded off on the car ride home, lights from the highway dancing over the stain on your shawl where you spilled that second cup.

The first time you make it perfectly by pure luck.

Then your mother hypes you up a bit too much for the house guests and you end up making hot water with complementary floating tea grounds. You spend afternoons finishing math homework and watching your nana skillfully pouring, filtering and answering your probing questions about what the gross milky film does for the tea beside make you gag.

They drink ambrosia out of foam cups and laugh rumbling belly laughs. Click To Tweet

She in turn, patiently teaches you to identify the right shade of brown and warns that Lipton tea bags are the devil’s answer to the holiness of properly brewed chai.

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Trial and error join as your mentors, with pots upon pots of wasted chai; some too sweet, some too white, some with grounds, or some full of coffee because you weren’t in the mood.

Until, finally, you learn the perfect ratio of evaporated milk to liquor to which your nana smiles her red paan-stained smile.

Lipton tea bags are the devil’s answer to properly brewed chai. Click To Tweet

You learn that not all chai was meant for consumption. Like the kind at Starbucks. Or the kind at your mosque for that matter. After long Ramadan days, the last thing you need is the nonsense that the masjid ladies try to disguise as “chai.”

It’s not.

No amount of prayer or those godforsaken Lipton tea bags could revive the telltale taste or even caffeinate you enough to stay standing tall during the seemingly ceaseless night prayers. Of course, until you find out about the league of dads (of which your dad is a member) and their covert operation that involves bringing traditional desi chai from home and distributing to others suffering under the mosque’s oppression.

You join them in the dimly lit parking lot as they drink ambrosia out of foam cups and laugh those rumbling belly laughs.

Mosquitos may have also congregated (for worship or vice you are still unsure) and the dewy humidity of Florida glues your hijab to your neck, but, hot chai awaits. Despite your father’s lectured precaution, your over-enthusiasm earns you a burned tongue.

But it tastes like the summer night so your injury is a small price to pay.

Because chai is desi communion granulated, steeped and poured into fine china. Click To Tweet

Chai is what your family asks for when they drive up to see you after weeks apart. College mornings are lovely, but family visits in the afternoons are what make the struggles worth it. With practiced perfection, you pour and boil and filter cups for everyone as your mother berates you for not eating enough and your father makes a joke about shining his already glistening expanse of a scalp.  You feel the sweet aroma of added spices curl around your sisters as they obnoxiously try to out-sing each other.

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Cinnamon is spilled on the counter because you are lazy, but also laughing, content, and happy.

And when the chai warms your hands as you glance around the chittering room, vacant of empty space and full of unspoken adoration, you smile into your cup.

Because chai is desi communion granulated, steeped and poured into fine china, ready to bring you back to your roots with every whiff of spice.

Nushrat Nur

Nushrat Nur

Nushrat Nur is a second year premed student majoring in journalism at the University of Florida. She values the importance of outreach medical care, the media's role in shaping more active participants in the fight for social justice, creative team initiative and her mom's bhiryani.

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