Friday, August 7, 2009

Is chai latte only a drink for wankers?

I have a confession to make. I've taken a real liking to chai lattes. I'm drinking at least two a week, and while I thoroughly enjoy this practice, I feel somewhat ashamed at the same time.

Why, you ask? Because the chai latte, delicious as it may be, is the embodiment of an all-too-common modern trend, the yuppified mainstream bastardisation of an otherwise worthy traditional food or drink.

Once upon a time before some evil genius invented chai latte, there was the masala chai of the Indian subcontinent. Chai simply means tea in Hindi, while masala refers to a blend of spices. The desi folk like their tea strong, sweet and very milky, with a hint of spice for aroma. Ginger, cardamom, cinnamon and clove are the most common spices used in the chai masala, although nutmeg, black pepper and fennel are sometimes added. In case you're confused, chai masala means "tea spices" and refers to the blend, while masala chai is "spiced tea" referring to the drink.

(As an aside, the idea of adding spices to tea and other hot drinks is hardly restricted to India. In Mexico, cinnamon is a common additive to coffee or hot chocolate. Afghanis and Kashmiris use cardamom to add fragrance to their green tea. Arabs traditionally add ground cardamom to their coffee, while the Yemenis, Somalis and Eritreans may add cinnamon and ginger as well. Ginger is a common addition to tea in Malaysia, and to coffee in Indonesia. What is common is that the spices used have "warming" properties and combine well with sugar and milk.)

Masala chai was largely unheard of in the West for a long time, appearing only in Indian restaurants and households. But its first steps towards wider acceptance was when it became the drink of choice of hippies and new-age types, who had presumably drunk it on their meditation retreats or spiritual pilgrimages to India. The drink's spiciness was a selling point not merely for the taste, but no doubt because spices signified exotic origins, and something more mysterious and alternative than the plain tea that the mainstream average Joe was drinking. It was now simply called "chai", or the redundant "chai tea" (which basically means "tea tea") and frequently bore one of the trademark signs of being altered by its counter-culture fanbase - people started putting soy milk in it. To be fair, chai with soy milk and honey is a very pleasant and comforting drink, particular on a cold day. But I suspect Indian traditionalists may view it like they view the trend of white girls wearing bindis on their foreheads as a fashion statement - somewhere between a quaint curiosity and a gross corruption of culture.

Around the same time, another drink from a different part of the world was becoming trendy - the cafe latte (meaning "coffee with milk"). Although the drink's name and DNA are clearly Italian, it is claimed that the caffe latte originated in either Seattle or Berkley, California, perhaps in the 1950s. In any case, the latte is an expresso coffee served with a large quantity of steamed milk. As fine a drink as caffe latte may be, a large part of its appeal was undoubtedly due to its Italian-sounding name. As the cappucino was becoming all too common, the latte gradually assumed the role of the coffee you ordered when you wanted to seem cultured and refined.

The pretensions associated with the latte certainly did not go unnoticed by the masses who hadn't embraced the drink. The term "latte-sipping" is code for elitist wanker. I typed that term into google and here is some of the phrases I came across, from American political discourse:

  • “Obama has won the small caucus states with the latte-sipping crowd. They don’t need a president, they need a feeling.”
  • "Those Brie-eating, Latte-sipping, Volvo-driving Republicans Are Most Unhappy about Huckabee"
  • Howard Dean should take his tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show back to Vermont, where it belongs."
Wow, so much hate. One would think from reading those that lattes contained the blood of murdered puppies or something.
Once lattes became commonplace, largely due to chains like Starbucks, soon enough you could not only order a mocha latte, but a toffee nut latte, a semi-skimmed vanilla caramelatte and all kinds of bizarre variations. Thus it was logical that the chai latte would be born, with the term "latte" now only being a vague term referring to a drink with a lot of steamed milk.
To make matters even more wanky, you can now buy chocolate chai, vanilla chai, peach chai, banana chai, and green chai with mint. Ridiculous.
Order a chai latte and it is very unlikely that tea leaves had anything to do with its preparation. Most varieties today either use a powdered mixture of tea, spices, sugar and God knows what else, or a flavoured syrup, both of which are combined with steamed milk. In contrast to the original masala chai, in which the dominant flavour is the strongly-brewed black tea, the main flavour you'll notice in a chai latte is its sweetness. Chai latte should really be entitled "frothy hot milk with sugar and cinnamon" because that it pretty much what it is - it lacks any of the bitter complexity of "proper" tea.
Which is not to say I don't like it. I do, particularly on cold afternoons when the aromatic spices and frothy milk impart an pleasingly warm and enveloping sensation - although the sweetness of it makes me feel a bit funny afterwards.
But let's be honest - it's a drink for wankers, right? I mean, if drinking caffe lattes is synonymous with being an anally-retentive yuppie trendoid, then the chai latte must have even worse connotations. Think about it. A caffe latte without the characteristic bitter notes of coffee but with more milk and sugar, while the word "chai" is more foreign and exotic and therefore more pretentious than the word "caffe". So basically, if you drink chai latte you are probably the worst type of elitist wannabe that ever existed.
But I still like it... is that so wrong?

See also:

Green tea is intent on world domination

Pilaf, pulao and paella - how a rice dish conquered the world

So who really invented noodles? Italy or China?

My encounter with dog meat in Eastern Indonesia

The Malaysian-Indian food experience


  1. Wonderful read- well put! I am an Aussie living in the US. The coffee/tea vocab here is confounding (as is the quality on most occasions!) tgb

  2. You're my new favourite foodie! As an Indian now living in Canada, I wholeheartedly agree with the statement "But I suspect Indian traditionalists may view it like they view the trend of white girls wearing bindis on their foreheads as a fashion statement - somewhere between a quaint curiosity and a gross corruption of culture." Alas!

    In other news, I have bastardized the Spaniard's paella today - cooking it with brown minute rice - an experiment that has yielded a tasty travesty.

  3. @ Anon:
    brown rice paella? That's heresy, surely!

  4. I'm in the same boat OP feel like such a dickhead ordering them but DAMN they taste so good!