I am fifth generation South African Indian. My forefathers came from India, brought to South Africa in the 1880s as indentured labour by the British to work in the cane fields.
(Picture: SA History)
My father’s side hails from villages near Punjab and my mother’s side from Kashmir. So much of my forefather’s experiences and stories have been lost over time but what does remain is very humbly orally passed down by my nani (grandmother) and mosies (aunts) to me.
I am told that chai (tea) has long being a part of my history with my forefathers predominantly brewing it as part of their ayurvedic practices - hurdee (turmeric) doodh (milk) with ginger for colds; pudina (mint) for stomach; elachi (cardamom) for aiding digestion and so forth. They would often add it to boiling water and mixing it with tea leaves only came later. In fact, access to tea for my forefathers came with British commercialisation of tea through the British East India Company.
The addition of then milk and sugar was done to mask the stronger taste of the medicinal ayurvedic herbs. In fact, this is how I understand chai to this day in 2020. It is a blend of spices that is good for your health but is also delicious. I don’t even need to make it with sugar or honey, that’s how perfect the blend has become over time through my family practices. So it’s just all these spices that have served my family’s good health for 100s of years and whatever milk (if you want to add milk) and water combo you boil it with. My forefather used buffalo’s milk which is rich and creamy and was most accessible to them. My grandparents use cow’s milk and when I gifted my aunts, uncles and cousins with some, they all preferred to use soy milk. I also think my chai tastes best with soy milk.
Image: spices in our chai
What chai has meant for family hasn’t changed over centuries either. I picture my forefathers arriving to this foreign land, after months on an over-crowded ship, arriving with a promise of a better life, being severely mistreated in this new land by its governors, subjected to an apartheid rule, yet a sense of community, of hope never leaving them. Gathering around a hot pot of boiling chai on an open fire, the warmth of that first cup flowing through their bodies, filling their stomachs with warmth, a sense of belonging, of community. This is, in essence, why I make chai, to foster connection.
I laugh now thinking of me proudly telling my nani how chai is gluten free, lactose free, packed with health benefits as if it’s ever not been over the centuries my family has made it. As someone with a gluten intolerance, it personally always strikes me how traditional Indian sweets and chai has been one largely free from gluten. I am so proud of my chai heritage, what it has meant for all the family before me and what is now means to all my family friends - a source of connection, a warmth in our bellies, that connects us.
I am now a first generation South African Indian Australian and am humbled to share my chai in this new home. The meaning behind my chai of connection remains. I am even more humbled to increase the health benefits of my chai by incorporating millennia old spices tried and tested by Indigenous Australians, such as wattleseed, which continues to aid us all in forming healthier lives, filled with connection.