CHAI RANT!!!11!!

It is time for another Chai Rant.


Years ago, about the twentieth word I learned in KiSwahili was “chai” … which, if you know Kiswahili you would immediately recognize as a borrowed term becasue it is a very unlikely set of phonemes for that language. In KiSwahili, Chai means tea.

If I tell someone in the United States, for some reason, “In KiSwahili, ‘chai’ means ‘tea’” the usual response will be “Oh, yea, I know that stuff. I like/don’t like “chai.” Chai is tea with cardamom and cinnamon and bla bla bla….”

And then I have to make the “shut up moron” clamy-clampy thing with my hand in their face so they stop yammering and say, “No. Chai, in Kiswahili, means tea. Nothing is implied about what is in the tea, how it is served, how it tastes. Nothing. Nada. Chai is the word for tea in that language. They, the speakers of KiSwahili, get to have a word for tea if they want one, and since vast quantities of tea are grown in KiSwahili speaking lands, and copious quantities of tea are consumed there, they do indeed have a word for “tea” and that word is “chai.” As far as I know, there is no word in KiSwahili for your yuppified culturally melded South Asian rip-off drink that you so pretentiously call “Chai” … unless it’s something like ‘Mai ya muzunungu bombafu hanaakiri’ which you don’t want to know the meaning of.”

(It means “White man’s moron water.”)

So many years back I visited a very up scale resort on the Cederberg (a mountain range) of South Africa, out in the bush from Cape Town. There was a game preserve there on which were preserved black wildebeest. Black wilebeest are the most different of the various African wildebeest antelopes (aka “gnu”), different enough from the many subspecies to be counted as their own species. They are prancier, prongier, fluffier, bouncier and somewhat (but not much) blacker in color. So it’s funny to be very habituated to watching regular wildebeests which are kind of gruff and intense looking and tough, and then come across the back wildebeests and watch them stotting around the landscape like, in comparison to the regular model gnu, dancers in a Baz Luhrmann production. The Moulin Rouge of antelopes.

There are other animals preserved on the preserve as well, along with a great deal of interesting “bushmen” art. But one thing that was not well preserved on the preserve is the elusive and enigmatic aardwolf.

An aardwolf is neither an aard(vark) nor a wolf. It is a hyena that evolved to eat ants and termites, and is convergent on the aardvarks and anteaters with respect to its rostrum (snout) and teeth. It is an insectivorous carnivore. It is a carnivore capable of killing another animal no larger than a shrew, but that mostly eats ants and termites.

Yet, despite the aardwolve’s absolute inability to kill, say, sheep (baby or adult), the sheep farmers in the farms surrounding this upscale resort routinely kill the aardwolves. Some say they do so out of ignorance … these farmers, descendants from men and women who have eked out a living on the South African veld for some three centuries, and who learned from those before them (the bushmen, when they weren’t busy exterminating them) what they could not learn on their own, somehow have this major misconception about one of the local basic animals. Possibly. It is also possible that they shoot the aardwolves out of disdain for all wildlife, because they are farmers and want only the domestic animals god gave them to farm on their god given land. Could be. It is also possible that they shoot the aardwolves because they know that the namby pamby liberal eco-environmentalist bushmen-lovers (such as those who built the up scale resort I was visiting) don’t want them to.

In any event, the number of aardwolves seen on this preserve had gone from a few to a couple to one to zero over the previous year or so, and the suspicion was that the farmers were killing them.

And those farmers …. they were farming chai.

To be more exact, they were farming a southern African plant drunk locally as tea. This is an excellent infusion that I enjoyed greatly when working in South Africa, and with which I would fill my suit cases on returning to the US so I would have enough to drink between trips. But, Americans, this ‘tea’ is now available at a grocery store, tea shop, or even coffee house near you.

It is called rooibos. Rooi = red, bos = bush. Redbush. Rooibos Tea .

While visiting this upscale resort, I learned more about rooibos than I had previously learned, because this is where it is grown, and it occurred to me that it would be good for the New South Africa (this was not long after apartheid had been lifted) if people outside of South Africa knew about it, demanded it, and thus created an export market.

That eventually happened, and now you can get rooibos tea.

But for a few years, you really couldn’t get it even though you could. Rooibos tea has a fairly strong and distinctive taste, but compared to “real” tea (from the tea plant) it is much more tuned to human taste buds. Tea, because it is a bitter drink is a somewhat acquired taste or requires milk and sugar. rooibos, while excellent with milk and sugar, is good to drink right away, and most people who try it plain or with a bit of sugar like it right away. Also, compared to many of the other teas sold by companies like Celestial Seasonings, rooibos totally kicks butt. So many teas are drunk because people think they are good for you (antioxidants and other “properties”) but they taste like aardwolf piss. rooibos, on the other hand, tastes good AND it has all those “properties” built in as well.

Nonetheless, for the first few year of rooibos tea being occasionally available in the US, it was almost impossible to find it unadulterated with some flavor like lemon or vanilla. It might be that they’ve been flavoring rooibos in South Africa all this time as well, but I certainly never saw it. No. You’d go into the grocery store, and there’d be this aisle, and there’d be coffee, instant coffee, Horlicks (like Ovaltine), and eventually, the teas, and about half the teas were regular tea and the other half were Lipton (or some other major brand) rooibos tea. No frills. Two versions: Regular and extra strong (matching what I believe were two varieties of the plant that produced the tea).

I felt at the time that tea purveyors in the United States were reluctant to put an unadulterated African product on the market. But that may just be me seeing anti-Africanism and racism everywhere.

In any event, you can now find rooibos tea in many stores, plain or flavored. Try it.

But it does bring up the question: By drinking (and buying) rooibos tea, are you supporting the New Post Apartheid South Africa, or are you supporting a bunch of aardwolf-haters in the Cederberg?

Honestly, I’m not sure. I assume the New South African government and the people (all of them) that the government serves can help figure this out. South African wines may help the economy, but South African wineries have a history of repression of non-white people that is pretty bad. Yet, many wines today are produced by companies owned by “previously disadvantaged” peoples (as the term goes) and under the new constitution many of the practices of the old days are no longer allowed. And so on.

Oh, and I should mention, that I spoke here of KiSwahili and the word “chai” and I spoke of South Africa. They are unrelated. Different regions of Africa. Nonetheless, Tea is a British Thing, and and African Thing, and for the many Americans who read this blog, not just something you dip into a cup of hot water, but rather, something you learn.

Comments

  1. #1 Mike Haubrich
    April 2, 2010

    So, this rooibos, is this something I would enjoy without milk/sugar in it? Because I am not fond of milk/sugar in tea. I am not fond of milk in anything. It causes me a problem with cereal.

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    April 2, 2010

    You’d have to try it. A lot of people drink it straight. Or, just try it with a little sugar.

  3. #3 Julie Stahlhut
    April 2, 2010

    I’ve drunk rooibos hot, iced, plain, sugared, with milk, with soymilk, with lemon, with vanilla, with cocoa, blended with yerba mate, and, yes, with all those yuppified “chai” spices in it. Love it any way I can get it — except with those fake-tasting fruit flavorings in it. I’m drinking a cup of hot rooibos tea with a touch of sugar and vanilla soymilk even as I’m typing.

    There’s also a South African brand called “Red Espresso” that’s actually just finely ground red rooibos that you can make in an espresso machine. The brew comes out a bit too strong and grassy-tasting, but it makes a very nice spiced tea latte.

  4. #4 alloytoo
    April 2, 2010

    While I’m still trying to figure out why rooibos growers would worry about any carnivore much less a harmless insectivore, I feel obliged to point out that those rooibos growers (along with many other South Africans) are being milked dry by exorbitant taxes required to support excesses of the New Post Apartheid government, which is led by a corrupt morally degenerate raciest.

  5. #5 Marilyn
    April 3, 2010

    Given the abundance of awful flavored tea (as in real tea) in the US, I’m not inclined to see flavored rooibos as a result of its African origins. But in both cases, it does hide the taste of the plant itself–and for some people, that’s probably the point.

    (I do drink flavored stuff on occasion, but it’s the exception rather than the rule, and good flavored teas are not terribly common in my opinion.)

  6. #6 Leilah
    April 3, 2010

    I might actually have another link for you there. I worked on a farm that grew herbal tea type plants for a company, and we looked into getting a few rooibos plants. The way that most places said the seeds of the plant are gathered is that they’re collected from ant/termite hills. So there may actually be a competition there – no ants = no seed collectors.

  7. #7 Greg Laden
    April 3, 2010

    Leilah: Huh. Interesting. Plant-animal interaction and seed dispersal is an interest of mine, but I had not heard that. I will definitely look into it!

  8. #8 Stephanie Z
    April 3, 2010

    Huh. I’ve been drinking rooibos since, well, back when I really hope it wasn’t coming out of South Africa. It was the base for the original Good Earth blend ages and ages back. Yes, very much Yuppie tea, but only for crunchy granola Yuppies.

    And hearing people talk about chai is just about as funny if you speak Russian and keep thinking samovars.

  9. #9 Kerrick
    April 3, 2010

    And cha = tea in Mandarin, and chai = tea in Hindi, and similar words in many other languages. So yes, it rather irritates me when people say “chai” and mean “white man’s moron water” rather than “chai masala” and mean “tea with masala spices”.

    Interesting things to think about with regards to the social/environmental justice of rooibos. And aardwolves. Can we expect to see an “aardwolf-safe rooibos” label anytime soon?

  10. #10 Greg Laden
    April 3, 2010

    Stephanie, yes, you find it here and there, though certainly not as an “organic” product until very recently.

    It only grows in South Africa. It is an endemic fynbos plant, and has a very limited range, and I don’t know of any commercial production outside of the Cederberg.

    Kerrick, good point about the word “chai” … I usually mention that in my Chai rants” but simply forgot this time.

    No dolphins were harmed in the production of this blog post.

  11. #11 Dunkleosteus
    April 3, 2010

    And cha = “tea” in Mandarin…

    Mandarin 茶 (chá) is the original word for tea that has spread across the world. The English name tea which is similar to the name in many western languages, comes from another Chinese language, Min Nan (tê).

  12. #12 Martijn Hover
    April 3, 2010

    I have a serious problem with rooibos ‘tea’ which is very similar to the problem you have when people from the old US of A tell you that they ‘know chai, blah, blah…’
    To me tea consists of the dried leaves of the tea plant, hence the name. The rooibos plant is not the tea plant, therefore the dried leaves of the rooibos plant are not ‘tea’ but, for want of a better word, ‘rooibos’. If I were to drie the leaves of, say, an oak tree and serve them soaked in boiling water I might call that ‘oak tea’, but it still wouldn’t be ‘tea’ in the factual sense.
    I also prefer the taste of actual ‘tea’ to the taste of ‘rooibos’, but that is another matter. Furthermore I would never consume the produce of farmers who shoot aardwolves, just to spite them.

  13. #13 travc
    April 3, 2010

    A word about antioxidants in tea (at least green tea). It isn’t a reason to drink tea. In fact, it may be a reason not to drink tea (though I think it probably is just totally insignificant.)

    See… all those great antioxidants in green tea rapidly get metabolized into non-antioxidants. Worse still, a significant portion of the resulting compounds are actually oxidants.
    Reality can be so fickle.

  14. #14 Amy
    April 3, 2010

    I have to learn those KiSwahili words for white man’s moron water, so useful for referring to all those horrible weird additive teas (and coffee for that matter)!

  15. #15 Greg Laden
    April 3, 2010

    Martijn: That is ALSO something I almost mention in this particular rant. Well, I did. I said, quite intentionally, “”To be more exact, they were farming a southern African plant drunk locally as tea. This is an excellent infusion that I enjoyed…”

    Tea is from the tea plant, Camellia sinensis just as “coffee” is from a coffee plant, and anything else that was brown and cafinated (like Coke?) would not be called coffee! I believe these other things are called ‘infusions”

    I should point out that I don’t think all rooibos is grown by aardwolf killers, and in fact, you can now chose to buy “fair traid” rooibos, though I’m not sure exactly what that means.

    travc: You are totally ruining it for everyone. I for one do not drink rooibos because it is good for me. I assume that because it is good, it is actually a little bit bad for me. If I want anti-oxidants, I’ll synthesize them!

    We had a big fight, I mean a heated discussion, about the green tea thing on this blog earlier, here:

    http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2009/07/scientia_pro_publica_seven.php

    Makes me laugh.

  16. #16 DuWayne
    April 3, 2010

    I am rather picky about people calling things that are not tea, tea. Though I think that if you are drinking the dried leaves of the Camellia Sinsensis, you might as well be drinking gnu piss. There are companies that indeed use the leaves in those barbaric tea-bags, as it makes the Gnu piss steep faster. But I know little of this practice, beyond knowing it happens, because I would rather beat my head against a wall than drink tea steeped from bags in a box.

    I am a hot beverage snob. I actually make the exception for coffee, that when trying to cut back I drink instant. But that is because I can only drink enough of that crap to keep from getting a headache.

    All that said, I do occasionally drink what I identify as Chai, because that is what it has always been identified as to me. I make it with fresh ground cardamom, cinnamon, black pepper, fresh chopped ginger, black tea tips and honey. I don’t honestly care if it may be called white man’s moron water, I like it and don’t have the pretension that it is something especially “cultural.”

    All right, I must get the boys up here to watch some how things are made videos on youtube. I cannot take anyfuckingmore of the Lawrence Welk…

  17. #17 Greg Laden
    April 3, 2010

    Ah, but DuWayne, you are being a total colonialist here. You know of “chai” as “chai” because that is your linguistic first contact and early experience. You chose to ignore the fact that you are totally wrong. Well, zillions of people grew up knowing that “tea” could be lemon grass, chamomile, rose hip, etc. Yet you do not allow them the same wrongness you allow yourself!

  18. #18 Jake
    April 4, 2010

    See, this is where growing up speaking more than one language comes in handy. One language doesn’t make a distinction between two things that are different? Probably the other one does. I call tea made from Camellia sinensis tea, and I call other infusions tisane. Unfortunately I have no such luck with chai masala, since both of my colonial languages are stupid about it. I call chai masala ‘chai’ out loud when I’m talking to other speakers of English or French, but I call it ‘chai masala’ in my head. And if I order it at an Indian restaurant I don’t expect it to be (or not to be) masala-y.

  19. #19 DuWayne
    April 4, 2010

    Oh, I don’t have any problem with not calling it chai anymore. But I do have to admit to being pretty colonialist, as it is virtually impossible not to be in the U.S. (or most of the west), without knowing a great deal about absolutely every culture from which various food, beverage and decorative items are derived. As for disallowing the mistakes of others in the face of my own…

    …I am a U.S. American for fucks sake. I am pretty sure that hypocrisy is written into our genetic code…

    Seriously though, I think it is entirely reasonable to muddle through our cultural experience with the understanding that we are pretty constantly going to make mistakes like this. It is what we do with them after we know better that is important. And also accepting that right or wrong, there comes a tipping point in cultural momentum, after which such mistakes are the accepted label for things that are unlikely to ever change. At that point it is a matter of choosing one’s battles.

    For example, while I am not terribly concerned about convincing people and/or companies like Celestial Seasonings that tea is tea and herbs make infusions, I am rather concerned about convincing sports teams with culturally offensive names to change them. Or more to the point, trying to convince our society that no, “they” should most certainly not just need to “get over it,” is more important to me than convincing people tea is tea, that hybridized/bastardized foods from other cultures cannot be accurately described as coming from the derivative culture.

    That is not to say that one can’t argue for both. It is just that for my own part, I am far less concerned about bastardized food stuffs and art (with some exceptions), than I am with a general lack of concern about systemic, institutionalized bigotry. And that while accepting that there is some occasional crossover…Sigh…It is all rather complicated, but well worth discussing and trying to untangle…

  20. #20 Greg Laden
    April 4, 2010

    Has anyone ever visited the Celestial Seasoning factory in Boulder CO?

    One part of the tour involves all the tourists (who want to, those doing this for the second+ time usually sit it out) into the “mint room” where the raw mint (peppermint, spearment, etc.) is stored. Then they close the big garage-door like door to the storage room do no air can circulate in and out.

    Then one begins to feel like a grasshopper on the losing side in the Plant-Animal arms race…

  21. #21 Sharon Astyk
    April 5, 2010

    This certainly causes you to expend many words. Properly speaking, non-camellia sinesis infusions are “tisanes.” Chai/Cha is the word for tea in many languages, but in english, has come to mean “indian style masala chai” – it seems odd to me that you should need to do that weird hand waving thing when someone in the US speaks of chai, since both of you know exactly what is meant. A polite “chai doesn’t always mean the same thing” could accomplish the same thing ;-). Just as folks in many places are entitled to their languages, the American use of the word Chai is not, in fact, wrong – it is simply a different usage in a language that already has another word for tea.

    I like Red Bush tea, I like masala chai, I like conventional teas, with and without flavorings (bergamot particularly is nice). I do not think that tea of any sort requires milk and sugar – it is quite pleasant black, and I drink an awful lot of it. Pedantry, on the other hand, is not so tasty.

    Sharon

  22. #22 DuWayne
    April 5, 2010

    Never been, don’t intend to be. I did get a temp assignment at a plant that does extracts once though. From outside you can smell the mint from almost a quarter mile away. From inside your eyes will actually water until you get used to the deluge that also includes apple and grape (neither of which are purely an extract of the respective fruits – the pure extracts of each wouldn’t taste like the flavor of the fruit). I was only there for two days, ostensibly for training to cover for someone going on maternity leave. Unfortunately my eyes just wouldn’t stop watering and it made my nose run – apparently a relatively common response.

    The floor manager, who had worked at a couple of their other plants, said that the most “enjoyable” plant that he had worked was one that does cinnamon and clove.

  23. #23 Jason Thibeault
    April 5, 2010

    I strongly disliked the chai tea I was made to try once (with milk and a touch of honey) several years back. Having seen the packaging of it, I’m almost certain I recall seeing the word rooibos on it somewhere, but I also remember the tea as tasting heavily of spices. I should perhaps see if I can find some “chai” and “rooibos” at the supermarket and try them again.

  24. #24 Greg Laden
    April 5, 2010

    Well, Sharon, generally I agree with the idea that language works the way it does and when people understand each other that is what counts. However, the adoption of a word to have a certain meaning through a filter of ignorance and/or marketing rather than learning or experience, while linguistically valid and culturally common, remains annoying to me, and I will continue to make my tongue-in-cheek Chai Rants now and then. But your point is essentially correct and well taken.

    I assume most readers will not miss the irony that you spent many words spanking me over my rant regarding the word “chai” yet you correct us on the use of the word “tea” vs. “tisanes” … you see, “tisanes” is the word for tea in your lexicon as an expert, but in US english, “tea” has come to refer to almost any infusion – it seems odd to me that you should need to do that weird correct the blogger thing when someone in the US speaks, for example, of “peppermint tea”, since both of you know exactly what is meant.

    (ROFLMAO)

  25. #25 penn
    April 5, 2010

    Greg L, you have missed the point. You are being told to shut up. Again. Will you never learn? There will always be people who think blogging is not your cup of infusion.

  26. #26 Greg Laden
    April 5, 2010

    penn: Take it down a notch, she has a point.

  27. #27 James
    April 5, 2010

    I always have crumpets with my sinesis. I’ll have to remember to order a cup of sinesis next time I am at Starbucks and desire tea. I wouldn’t give you the time of day for all the sinesis in China!

    No, this is not working for me.

    Tea is tea, and all those other hot liquids are too ‘cept hot chocolate and java. And, I sort of thought this blog post was about something else with the chai part being more of a loss leader. But I’ve not had my daily cup of sinesis, so it is possible that I am not thinking straight.

  28. #28 Morejello
    April 5, 2010

    I’ve had rooibos, and I didn’t care for it much. I thought that was interesting, because I generally enjoy Tea, flavored teas, and other random herbal infusions.
    Perhaps it was the quality of the Rooibos that I got. After all, I live in Idaho. Not exactly a mecca of cultural interchange.

  29. #29 MadScientist
    April 5, 2010

    Meh. I never was a fan of rooibos. Perhaps “chai” comes from one of the Chinese words for tea which sounds like “cha”? I never could figure out what this “chai” thing in pretentious cafes was all about – it seemed to be a different thing in every cafe. As for “tea” – it seems to be any plant material infused with hot water with the sole exception of coffee. The “tea” shrubs (species of camellias) are a number of plants whose leaves are used for the various “black teas”. The Chinese also have a variety of floral teas (like daisy), “green” teas which may or may not be made of tea (such as the jasmine tea which uses the young jasmine leaves), and all sorts of concoctions which use the barks, leaves, and even fruits of plants. And in the case of “sandalwood tea” I’m convinced it’s sawdust from traditional shoelasts.

  30. #30 MadScientist
    April 5, 2010

    @DuWayne: Heh – I thought it might be that bad. I extracted the scents from a number of flowers (and orange peels) many years ago and just a few drops of any of the extracts would make me feel sick (though it smelled great from a distance – a great great distance). I also went through a chocolate factory once and the smell was barely tolerable.

  31. #31 Monado
    April 6, 2010

    In Japan, I believe that tea is o-chai, or “honorable tea.” Although that usage may be obsolete.

  32. #32 DuWayne
    April 6, 2010

    …of “peppermint tea”, since both of you know exactly what is meant.

    That is not always as certain as you might think. After all, when I make peppermint tea, I am brewing a cup of sencha and mint. And I have friends made in Portland from my occasional visits to a very good teahouse (while I could still afford to go) who are just as, if not considerably more neurotic about their tea as I am. Here in MI, I have only one really hard core hot beverage friend (technically, I think I could also include his partner, but she was converted by him and is not quite as hardcore). But if any of us would mention mint tea without mentioning what type of tea was going with it, we would not know what the other person meant. I am also occasionally surprised people, who actually mean mint and tea…

    Sharon –

    I have to agree with you to a certain degree. I accept without hesitation that language is ever evolving and that evolution includes adopting words that are actually part of another language – even when it means something different after adoption, which of course it frequently does. Nor are U.S. Americans the only folks who do this.

    The caveat that I have to put to that, is that in doing so, one must accept that there are people who find this practice offensive and/or are very sensitive to what this action represents. It is really easy for westerners to forget that large swaths of the world (including the U.S.) are/were subject to centuries – if not millenia – of colonial rule. Many of these places have a long history of being the folks who bore the brunt of proxy wars, that allowed (mostly) European countries to keep their wars from actually effecting the people at home.

    And for many of these countries, if they are no longer under colonial rule, the most recent colonial rule is still a part of living memory.

    Note – I am not mentioning this because I think it is essential to stop using all of the various words that fit into this context. In many cases there are a very few people who actually care and opposing them are other members of the same culture who are either ambivalent or see it as a positive sign of the acceptance of aspects of their culture into the larger cultural context of the west. There are certainly cases/contexts where I think it is entirely reasonable not to use particular words.

    But I mention this more because I think this is something that people would do well to think about, rather than out of an overt desire to change this particular behavior. I think it provides a better context for understanding why certain words used in certain contexts are deeply and nearly universally – for members of the related culture – offensive and rightfully so.

  33. #33 Greg Laden
    April 6, 2010

    I think it is clear that in American English (at least) “tea” is the word for “infusion” be it pepperment, tea-tea, manure/compost, or even mixtures of alcohols. In South Africa, “tea” means the same thing as far as I know … pretty much any infusion. Probably elsewhere as well.

    Most speakers of English around the world, and other languages use the word “chai” for “tea.” As far as I know, only those sold on “chai masala” as “chai” in the use think “chai” means something other that “tea, usually tea-tea.”

    It is perfectly fine for Americans to adopt the word everyone else uses for a species specific but general kind of beverage to mean a certain mixture (which would be like, say, Australians thinking that “coffee” was coffee with cream and sugar and a sprinkle of nutmeg), and a different word for the same exact drink for anything from the same species specific infusion to cow shit in water that you spread on your lawn. It’s just that some of those usages are going to sound funny for people with different (and equally valid) linguistic experiences. Like those who speak English but are either not American or who have lived and/or traveled in other countries a lot.

  34. #34 Jenny Bloom
    May 3, 2011

    In some parts of Asia, Southeast Asia specifically, they call it “cha”, and I believe it’s a Chinese word for tea, just like what Kerrick stated above in his comment.

  35. #35 kleigh
    October 31, 2011

    it killlllllllls me when I go to a restuarant and order “tea-tea” or tea-latte! its MA-SA-LA people,masala!!!!
    CHAI means TEA!! It is the MASALA that means tea with spices different…than ordinary black tea which can be CHAI.
    I liked your post blogger!my 2 cents..