Desi and Disturbed: Iced Chai-Tea Lattes

How American companies culturally appropriate traditional South Asian tea into American-style beverages for Western consumption.
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To most South Asians, chai, or tea, is an essential part of our culture. Happy? Celebrate with chai! Sad? Chai will cheer you up! Celebrating? With chai of course! With every meal, event, or  occasion, one must offer chai. Desis prepare a wide variety of chai ranging from doodh patti chai, a milk-based tea; to masala chai, a tea containing an array of spices such as ginger, cardamom, and star anise; to Kashmiri chai, a sweet tea prepared with Kashmiri tea leaves and baking soda. Chai is a simple yet satisfying blend for us–one that connects us to our culture. Yet, American companies constantly culturally appropriate chai into sugary, American-style iced lattes. They erase the violent history behind chai that many South Asians endured, market the drink as an “exotic” beverage for western consumption, and in doing so exploit South Asian culture simply for profit. 

The Starbucks “iced chai-tea latte” holds little resemblance to an authentic cup of South Asian chai. What should be a simple combination of hot black tea, water, milk, sugar, and plain spices served with biscuits has become a sweet iced-drink latte overloaded with 42 grams of sugar, organic unsweetened vanilla soy milk, and grainy-textured spice. It’s topped with whipped cream, drizzled in caramel and cinnamon powder, and served with a big fat chocolate-chip cookie. Even more, the name itself is cringeworthy. The term “chai-tea” is redundant: “chai” literally means tea. Saying “chai-tea” is like saying “tea-tea.” To quote my mother who first heard this, “Are they bewakoof (stupid)?” Using the Urdu/Hindi word for tea, “chai,” in front of “tea” makes “chai” a descriptor for “tea.” It intends to make the classic American-style drink seem more “cultural.” But to any South Asian, this name sounds just as absurd as the drink itself.

Iced chai tea lattes may seem like harmless ignorance, but in the realm of history, it reflects the West’s continuous exploitation of South Asian culture and labor for profit. The creation and profit of chai in South Asia has vicious origins tied to India’s dark colonial past. British colonial administrators profited off South Asian goods and labor with no credit or compensation to eventually become global tea exporters. In 1835, colonial administrators set up tea plantations in Assam, India and used indentured servants for labor. By 1904, Indian tea exports took the position as the world’s largest tea exporter. India’s tea industry’s development was closely associated with the growth of Western market for tea. And the colonial era encouraged and supported the tea plantation with foreign capital and enterprise. The Boston Tea Party, an integral moment in American history, saw its tea coming from the British East India Company itself. It was this company that provided American colonies with tea and imposed enormous taxes on this drink, all while overworking and underpaying Indian workers on these plantations. 

While British colonialism and indentured servitude may have officially ended, exploitation did not–it simply took on a different form in the 21st century. American firms give no credit to the origins of chai. Instead, they culturally appropriate aspects of South Asian culture into these white-washed lattes and take credit for the invention. Corporations attempt to market their lattes as “authentic,” but these chocolate, peppermint, pumpkin, spiced apple, and raspberry “chai-tea latte blends” hold almost no similarities to the cup of chai South Asians have drunk for generations. 

Businesses rely on “exotic” fantasies of South Asian culture for Western consumption. Trader Joe’s markets its “Spiced Chai” as a “rich robust blend of Assam black tea and exotic spices.” The image on the box shows an elephant, a traditional symbol of power in South Asia, in colorful designs holding a cup of tea on its trunk. This orientalist depiction of chai exotifies South Asian culture, making the drink more appealing to Western consumers. The wording, descriptions, spices, and flavors attempt to maintain a guise of cultural appreciation, but in reality all feed into degrading stereotypes of South Asian culture. They erase the history, cultural significance, and authenticity of chai. But it is through these exact techniques American companies such as Starbucks have become global coffee and tea manufacturers. 

The term “chai-tea” is ignorant yet unsurprising considering the blatant lack of cultural appreciation or historical consideration American businesses have for South Asian culture. Companies such as Starbucks and Trader Joe’s are multi-billion dollar corporations that have grown famous in part due to Westernization of other cultures’ traditional foods and recipes. Marginalized people’s cultural symbols, traditions, food, and more in American society are often taken out of their original context and Westernized without the marginalized community’s consent. Iced chai-tea lattes are just one example of this incessant cultural appropriation. With this in mind, it is important to recognize the true origins of chai and to preserve its authenticity within American culture.