Long Reads

My Complicated Relationship with the Starbucks Chai Latte

October  4, 2016

A few times a year, if I’m nursing a head cold, I’ll leave my Brooklyn apartment and walk a block and a half to Starbucks. It’s quite an ordeal: I rehearse my order on the walk over, those seconds laced with self-hatred. My anxiety hypes up tenfold when I picture that cramped interior, filled with a gaggle of Pratt students and European girls in Stan Smiths. How do I rationalize ordering a chai latte from Starbucks when my roots lie in chai’s mighty birthplace, India?

Photo by Kirthana | Theblurrylime

Part of the Starbucks oeuvre since the mid-90s, the chai latte has undergone various mutations. I’ve tried them all at different points in my life, each tethered to some vivid anecdote. I had the chocolate chai on the first day of senior year in college as I tended to a mean hangover, its taste was reminiscent of wax. Last winter, I had a sip of a friend’s Oprah cinnamon chai and immediately questioned our friendship. Starbucks markets its chai as “spiced black tea blended with milk,” but there’s only one discernible flavor profile: sugar.

Somewhere in that cup, I want to believe, is a trace of the chai I grew up drinking at home. Chai was so much a part of my parents’ everyday life in India, and they brought it with them when they moved to the States. They raised me drinking it.

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The chai I grew up drinking is a beautiful frankenstein of a drink, and brewing it is a laborious process that can take twenty minutes: You bruise ginger, cinnamon, peppercorn, cloves, and cardamom together in a saucepan. You add water and raise it to a boil, letting it simmer just long enough before you add bags of black tea. You let those steep before you add sugar and milk, whisking furiously until their consistency smoothens. The flavors that result from the tea and spices braided into the milk feel synchronous.

The first Starbucks opened up in my suburban pocket of New Jersey in the mid-aughts. Barely a teenager, I was thrilled when I saw the chai latte on its menu. Listed under the words "cappuccino" and "latte," it was proof—clearly!—that my family’s foreign traditions, too, were becoming part of daily parlance.

The taste, too, wooed me: My palate hadn’t yet matured to respond to anything but sugar, so I feasted on this drink: It was sweet, but not clunky and buffoonish like a frappuccino. Chai had a feigned ring of sophistication. My parents tried it and hated it—it was the try-hard, cloying sweetness—a position they maintain to this day. I should’ve listened.

Whatever. In those years, chai became my go-to drink on balmy Sunday afternoons, when I’d hole myself up in Barnes & Noble and chip away at SAT practice tests. I needed something to pacify this objectively miserable activity.

Photo by James Ransom

In college, though, I boycotted chai. Parroting the verbiage of my brown peers, I began flirting with the possibility that the Starbucks chai was evidence of cultural appropriation. Identity politics permeated my caffeine habits: Chai became the enemy, an affront to my heritage. I weaned myself off it.

But that sweetness has a certain persistence. I moved directly to New York after graduation, twenty-two and ripe for getting my ass kicked. On my first day here, frazzled from hauling a bed frame up flights of a prewar walkup, I traipsed over to my neighborhood Starbucks looking for a quick fix—something that’d satisfy my twin cravings for caffeine and richness. So I went for a chai. And its taste, so mild and safe, reminded me of the simplicity of my pre-adult life in suburbia.

Photo by Sally

There’s no way around it: The Starbucks chai is a concoction that bastardizes the soul of its namesake. Whenever I drink Starbucks chai, I pay penance afterward—mentally, physically.

But our favorites, as Hemingway once said, are problematic. What brings me back to this twelve-ounce tub of sugar? It’s a bit like asking what brings you back to that one ex—the one who makes your principles jump out the window. I drink Starbucks chai because the taste reminds me of the earnest teenager I once was, longing for evidence that my family’s differences could somehow occupy a world outside our home, no matter how false the taste was.

Have a conflicted relationship with a Starbucks drink? Scribble your thoughts down below!

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Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.


Michele M. February 27, 2019
I absolutely love this piece. Your writing is fantastic. I look forward to reading more from you.
Maya C. December 7, 2018
I love tea and specifically Chai. I make it at home using amazing Chai tea blends, honey and almond milk but I sometimes find myself going back to the Chai latte at Starbucks. In fact, it's the only drink I have ever ordered from them.
Mare T. October 3, 2018
I too had a chai addiction to rival any crack head! I got off the stuff about a year ago when my blood work showed I had extremely high levels of lead and cadmium. I could find no source...no lead in our pipes or water (we had them checked) no lead paint any where. I am not an artist who works with the reddish orange tint of cadmium and I had not been exposed to sendon hand smoke enough to make sense of an off the charts cadmium level. (Cadmium is more dangerous than mercury for the brain and I have now been told I am on my way to a congnitive dis order if I don;t get this stuff out of my bones organs, tissues, blood and bones. I researched and researched and could not figure a source. Until one day I came upon an article that states some black teas from India and China have very high levels of both lead and cadmium in them. BINGO! Be very careful people.....if you drink soy beverages from Starbucks or are a chai-a-holic like I was, go get your heavy metals checked. I’d love to find someone with a lab so I could check samples of this drink to see how bad it really is.
scott.finkelstein.5 January 4, 2017
And then there's the chai of Swahiliphones, black tea brewed in a sweetened 50/50 water/milk mix.
labingha October 5, 2016
This is lovely and reminds me ever so slightly of my guilt about my yearly November trip to a Starbucks to order a short eggnog latte. I always want the eggnog taste to be reminiscent of my mother's homemade eggnog from my childhood. I'm somehow always surprised that the only flavor is sugar. I throw it away after three sips, cured of the eggnog latte urge for another year.
Monica K. October 5, 2016
Oh this is my soul speaking!! I hate chai... I crave chai. I am Indian and go buy starbucks chai (my way). Starbucks employees see me coming and know that I will order chai my way : Grande chai with soy. No water. Double the chai (8 pumps). No syrup. I love the spice and warmth and hate the aftermath of guilt.
Jenn K. January 30, 2018
This is exactly what I order! I'm desperate to quit, but each morning I find myself steering my car into my local Starbucks for my daily dose of spice that burns my throat.
Rebecca S. October 5, 2016
I love this so much! I go through the same shame each time I order a Chai and find myself whispering my order to a Starbucks employee.
marvelous.max October 5, 2016
I too, stepped from saccharine coffee syrup blends (chocolate, caramel, vanilla) to chai as a craving for spice set in. I ran the sweet chai gauntlet, sampling chai in every cafe I visited, and my final conclusion is this: I love me a SPICY soy chai. If a cafe only does sweet chai, I just go for a long black, as I want that heat and pronounced pepper/cinnamon/clove flavour dancing on my tongue.
Juu October 4, 2016
my experience is disturbingly similar to yours...
I used to love Starbucks Chai, drank it while studying for GRE's at barnes & noble. I really liked their chocolate chai, the first time I had it. The second and third time tasted like sweetened milk with absolutely no other flavors, and that is how I quit Starbucks, 5 years running now.
Julie October 4, 2016
Beautifully, beautifully written! Your closing statement resonates with me about so many things.
Panfusine October 4, 2016
What an eloquent way to express the suppressed indignant thoughts that invariably get generated when faced with a serving of Starbucks' 'CHAI'.
Betsey October 4, 2016
This makes me really want to find a "real" chai!!
Prathima October 4, 2016
This is everything.