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My Complicated Relationship with the Starbucks Chai Latte

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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.

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.

What Madhur Jaffrey Wants You to Know About Masala Chai
What Madhur Jaffrey Wants You to Know About Masala Chai

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!

Tags: Tea, Long Reads