Making a good cup of chai is extremely versatile in my Pakistani culture and family. When done right, the comfort drink is an amalgamation of competence and companionship.

Every morning starts with chai, every time a guest is over it is the first thing served, and in reconciliation, there is little that provides more consolation than a well-made cup of tea.

Chai is one of the oldest drinks in South Asian countries and is loved by many, whether they part from their homelands or not. The habit of drinking tea comforts the soul and reconnects one with their heritage.

Though the popularity of the drink came with British colonizers flooding India in the 19th century – it was quickly fashioned with various spices to compliment the leaves. In other words, it was definitely taken to the next level.

Growing up and being one of three chai makers, my parents spawned, meant that receiving truly honest feedback on how they took their tea was part of the job. We leave it to steep for at least a few minutes to bring out every bit of caffeinated flavour from the teabag, some elaichi (cardamom) for my mom and one and a half heaping teaspoons of sugar for my dad (contrasted by two tea bags in his cup). A splash of oat milk for the missus and dairy for the mister, and voila!

In South Asian culture, chai makes an appearance at every gathering. In movies and tv shows, I’ve seen it most present at arranged meetings to discuss a potential marriage or “match” between two families.

Such customs allow for families to scope one another out, scrutinizing every detail – most especially the capabilities of the prospective wife.

Much of the dialogue between community members rely on gossip and what others would think of one’s personal affairs. Perhaps this is attributed to the collective mindset brought along with immigrant communities in the West but nonetheless, the quality of a cup of chai serves as the perfect indication of competence.

On the other hand, the drink symbolizes connection and heritage, and comfort. Every morning at home begins with a cup of tea with my mom as we talk through our plans for the day. Chai breaks, often falling between 5 and 7 PM, source us with quality time together.

When conflicts arise, there is little that can bring more solace in my home than sitting with a cup of chai and letting ourselves calm down.

I’m much more accustomed to the slightly less caffeinated relative of coffee, though it doesn’t do much for keeping me awake throughout the day. As I learn more about my culture, my religion, and what my relationship with the two looks like – chai anchors me with core memories and long-established ties to the region my family comes from.

Having one foot in either the east or west door in an ever-globalizing community is full of revelations and complications. Observing tangible hypocrisy and developing morals that are foreign to what my upbringing may have taught me is a road tricky to travel but celebrations of the heritage I belong to remain incredibly fulfilling.

This is kind of my version of Chicken Soup for the Soul.

Illustration By: Sadie Levine
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