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SONIAH KAMAL, Chai, Tea and Me.

Soniah Kamal is an award winning novelist, essayist and public speaker. Her most recent novel, Unmarriageable: Pride & Prejudice in Pakistan (Penguin Random House USA), a post colonial parallel retelling of Jane Austen’s classic, is a Financial Times Readers’ Best Book of 2019, received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, Shelf Awareness, Library Journal, is a New York Public Library and an NPR Code Switch Summer Read Pick, a Library Reads and People’s Magazine pick, a 2019 ‘Books All Georgians Should Read,’ a 2020 Georgia Author of the Year for Literary Fiction nominee, is shortlisted for the 2020 Townsend Award for Fiction, and hailed as a novel that writes back to Empire, and more.

Listen to Soniah's SOREN LIT podcast interview here:

Chai, Tea and Me.

by Soniah Kamal

When I flew out to college in America from Pakistan in the early 90s, one of the

first cravings to hit me as my parents waved their final goodbyes and left me alone

on my small liberal arts campus was the craving for chai. An Urdu word, chai

literally means tea. In Pakistan chai is tea leaves simmered into a golden-copper

brew, sweetened with sugar and drunk with either a dash of milk or so much milk

it turns the concoction into royalty. That’s what I craved as I cried myself to sleep

that first night— a piping hot cup of sugary milky chai with the added touch of

cardamom seeds floating like lilies on top.

 I had not realized in Pakistan that tea was going to become my home away from

home and so while I had packed henna powder to continue coloring my hair the

fiery red it used to be once upon a time, packed chewing gum with cinnamon

liquid insides to mask the smell of the Marlboros Lights I used to smoke back then,

packed sugar coated fennel and sachets of Rasily supari, for an after dinner dessert,

I had not thought to pack tea. 

The next day, the college arranged a trip to the grocery store. Walking up and

down the wide cold aisles, I finally asked someone to point me in the direction of

tea. My eyes rested on peppermint teas, Lemon Zingers, Cherrys and Blueberrys,

on Chamomiles, Sleepy Times, Roohiboos, Plantation Mints, Dandelion, and

Orange Pekoes. I frantically searched the multiple shelves— cinnamon spice tea,

green teas galore, sugar plum tea, hibiscus tea but no tea as I knew tea.  

“I’m looking for just plain regular normal tea,” I earnestly explained to a befuddled

shelver. “Unflavored tea to which I will add sugar and milk.”

The young man looked pained as he informed me that he himself was a coffee

drinker and, after several minutes of staring at the teas as if he too was seeing them

for the first time, he handed me a box of iced tea. 

“I guess,” he said, “just don’t refrigerate?”

I followed his directions. It did not taste good. It did not look good either, a weak

watery brown that the addition of sugar and milk turned into an off white

sickeningly sweet something undrinkable. 

It would not be until many months later when I flew to Kalamazoo Michigan

where a friend was studying, and we drove down to Chicago and its famous Devon

Street, a hub of South Asian restaurants and shops that I would enter an Indo-Pak

grocery store and finally come upon some plain old perfectly regular chai. That

first sip was home, sheer giddy happy relief and I took a truckload of tea back to


Almost twenty years later when Starbucks started selling something called chai-tea

latte, how excited we South Asians were even as we collectively rolled our eyes at

tea being named a redundant ‘chai tea’ ie tea-tea, and what in the world was coffee,

latte, doing attached to tea-tea? Perhaps predictably enough, chai-tea latte turned

out to be nothing like chai as we know it and for me it brought back my early days

in America and my search for home in a cup.  

Of course since then I’ve learned that the normal black tea I was so hopelessly

searching for is, in the U.S., called orange pekoe. It had been there, on the shelf, all

along but I had not known, under a name I did not recognize. Since then I’ve also

learned to appreciate a cold glass of sweet tea, after all I do live in the South, and

my favorite American style tea an ice filled Celestial Seasonings Country Peach

Passion but even now when the craving for home hits the recipe is as old as time:

1) pour a cup’s worth of water into a saucepan 

2)  drop in a hefty tablespoon of tea leaves

3) simmer till it bubbles golden-copper

4) add sugar and milk to taste

5) add 2 or 3 cardamom pods

6) drink in the heavenly scent

7) pour into cup, sip slowly, savor your chai, welcome to my home.

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