Words by Charmella Williams
OK, that’s not necessarily true. Chai means “tea” in Hindi, but the central role it plays in nearly all Indian social gatherings surely qualifies it as an honorary family member—at least.
The thing about Western societies is they’re often oblivious to the customs and beauty of Eastern ways of life. Luckily, Atlanta’s The Chai Box, founded by Monica Sunny, is working to bridge that gap between worlds—because there’s nothing a warm cup of tea can’t fix.
“Chai is more than just a drink; it is a part of my cultural heritage.”
Sunny’s voice rang with nostalgia and reverence as we traced her journey from its roots in Punjab, India where she was born, to her childhood in Atlanta, to the present day. For her, the warm, spiced tea has been a prominent theme in her life, helping her to stay grounded and connected to both her family here in the States and to her birthplace so many miles away.
In India, chai is an integral aspect of everyday life, and no two pots are made the same. Each family has its own unique recipe, but morning chai time is universal. It’s also customary to offer chai to visitors, or to sip it with family at the end of a long day. For Monica, who learned how to make it herself at the age of five, it’s the loving, ritualistic nature and unifying power of chai that she remembers most. “I have memories of my grandfather having chai at 5 a.m., with a big kettle, sitting there reading his paper,” she recalls as she thinks back on life in Punjab before emigrating to America. “That was his ritual.”
When Monica’s family left their well-to-do life in North India in the 1980s, the world around her shifted drastically as her parents started from scratch in the United States. Thousands of miles from home and barely able to speak English, Sunny’s family had at least one thing to keep them on steady ground. “We came here with really nothing—the one thing that was consistent was our chai time.”
As she got older and had kids of her own, the ritual continued on, starting when her boys were just 3 years old. Over the years she taught them how to make their own tea using the family chai box, a spice box found in every Indian household. “It’s really dear to people’s hearts because it holds all the spices that you need to cook with,” explained Monica. She never imagined that a quaint family tradition would eventually grow into a successful business for her and her husband, but as friends continued asking her for their own chai, she realized the market was there.
Affectionately named with all of India in mind, The Chai Box is an Atlanta-based tea company that specializes in chai blends, concentrates, and gift sets. For the Sunnys, it’s about not only enjoying the warm, earthy flavors and medicinal benefits the tea has to offer, but also taking the time to boil the leaves, add your own flair, and make chai the way it was intended to be made—with love. And the roots of that love run deep.
Each and every spice and concentrate you’ll find on thechaibox.com is hand-picked directly from the plantations of Kerala, a tropical Indian state hugging the Arabian Sea. “All of our blends are inspired by different regions in India,” said Monica as she talked through their variety of products. “Chai is made many different ways throughout [the country], utilizing regional spices and enhancing local flavors.” And the best part is, it’s all Mother Earth-friendly. The Chai Box buys directly from the small-scale farmers of Kerala, who use regenerative agricultural techniques. Everything from the packaging—they rely on rice paper rather than plastic—to the chai itself—no preservatives, loose leaf tea only—is sustainable and ethically sourced. They even got a Sustainability Design award from New York Now for going the extra green mile, because at the end of the day, quality is more important than the temporary benefits of shortcuts.
“It's so easy to get something that's bad for you that's got all sorts of chemicals,” explained Sunny. “It's always harder to do things right—and when you want to do something right, it comes with its own set of challenges that you just have to be prepared for. [This is] a good opportunity to teach my kids to do the right thing.”
Chai may have gotten its start on the other side of the world, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a place for its warmth and healing here in the States. Maybe now is a good time to start a chai box for your own family.
Side note: Remember, never say “chai tea.” It’s the same as saying “tea tea!”