Firstly, the question in the title is redundant. You cannot call your tea 'chai' if there is no milk in it. It is as simple as that. Milk is, by no means, the only additive for tea and nor is it the only way to consume tea, but if you call it a chai, milk is assumed. But the amount of milk that you add is a whole other debate.
Before we get into the technical details of milk and tea proportions, let me get one thing out of the way. Who in their infinite wisdom decided to equate milk with affluence in this country? I understand the logical conclusion that since cow is holy, milk can also be considered sacred. But since when do we equate divinity with riches? If that were true, then every 'baba' in India should be rich, or Ambani should be a god! Wait for a second! Both those things are true. 😅
So, this brings us to the first factor that influences the amount of milk in tea- affluence. It is the only way for teetotalers to exude wealth without putting edible silver and gold sheets on the surface of the chai! More milk means more moolah. Only the poor cannot afford to have a decent cup of chai teeming with milk! While I will debunk this belief in the following few paragraphs, there is SOME truth to this fact. If you consider the cost of organic and free-range dairy products these days, affluence should definitely play a role in fixing the quantity of milk in our chai! We've got milk ranging from thirty rupees a litre to two hundred a litre. Apparently, the cow that provides the expensive milk only eats grass flown in from New Zealand every morning. On off days, they smuggle the grass from Bangladesh and relabel it. Please don't about the source of this treasure trove of information. Whatsapp is informational these days, apparently.
Anyway, aside from the fact that the entire human race is genetically supposed to be lactose intolerant, we do not need the nutrients or proteins that cow milk provides. You know there is SOME science to vegan diets! But considering that we are not wrestlers who drink a couple of litres of milk every day, let us assume that the small amount of milk in our daily cuppa is OKAY. But even then, how much?
There are three kinds of chai drinkers in India.
Those who prefer watery chai, with a splash of milk
Those who prefer a chai with a respectable 50-50 split of both
Insane people who think adding even a drop of water dilutes chai
Before we go any further, a message to the third kind - what you drink is also called 'basundi' or a thin 'rabdi' in some states. Traditionally it has a cardamom and almond flavour, but you prefer yours with some tea in it. Good for you. Stop calling it chai.
The other two kinds are understandable. Not everyone likes the strong hit of tea or the overpowering rich flavour of milk or cream. But this also depends on the sort of tea we use, right? For instance, years ago, mom prepared chai using this branded tea called 'Society'. This tea is so mild that you'd probably need to eat a teaspoon of the tea powder along with your chai as an activating agent to feel any effect of the actual tea. But, on the other hand, there is this other brand of tea called 'Wagh Bakri'. For the benefit of those who do not understand Hindi or Marathi, this name translates to 'Tiger Goat' in English. And I think I know why they decided to give it such a weird name. The tea powder has the strength of a tiger masquerading as a goat. It smells perfectly harmless but somehow becomes potent when boiled to a good consistency. Now, I wouldn't mind a good serving of milk with a chai like that!
And let's get one thing straight. Chai is never a tea with milk on the SIDE. You always boil the tea in water AND milk. You may choose to boil the water first and add the milk slightly later. You may choose to boil the milk first and add the water later. Or you may choose to heat the pan first and wonder why your tea leaves are burning, but you NEVER add raw milk to a chai. And this is why this topic of discussion even exists! If it were as easy as topping off your tea with the required amount of milk, there would be no confusion at all, no?
But since you cannot alter the composition of chai once ready, this conversation matters. And it is also the reason why I am so paranoid about ordering chai anywhere outside unless vouched for by someone who shares my taste preference. So let's go back to those tastes then!
I prefer a healthy 50-50 or 70-30 combination of water and milk, based on whether my wife is joining me for chai or not. She prefers the watered-down chai, and I don't blame her. There was a time when we used to kick back a few cups of chai daily during stressful work hours. You have that much tea with 50-50 milk, and your body's going to produce enough acid for a bunch of hippies to trip on!
My preference for more milk also depends on whether this is a drink driven out of need or company. If I am drinking tea as a pick-me-up, then even a minimal amount of milk does the trick. But, if the chai session is to extend into a good hour with samosas and a chat, then I DESERVE a 50-50 chai. That is the only way to respect the moment.
But not all people share this sentiment. My sister, for instance, abhors any chai that has more than a teaspoon of milk in it. When I say a teaspoon, I mean a teaspoon. I've experimented and verified. When it comes to milky chai, her palate is better trained than a litmus test. The next time I visit her, I will experiment with different types of milk instead and put that palate of hers through some rigorous testing.
Oh yes, type of milk! Let's not forget that we live in the age of over-abundant consumerism, and dairy products are by far the most exploited lot! You've got full cream, skimmed, toned, with varying degrees of fat! Then you've got soy milk, almond milk, cashew milk and any other vegetable-fruit-or-nut-that-they-can-extract-some-white-fluid-out-of milk. Tea wasn't ever supposed to partner with soy milk. If you wish to be vegan, please embrace black tea and save your taste buds from unnecessary anguish and your wallet from unnecessary drain!
But my sister's example highlights the main point of this discussion. Our definition of chai even in the same household is so diverse that expecting to maintain that consistency across the entire country is nothing short of a pipe dream. No, wait! It is a labyrinth of pipe dreams, yeah! So the next time someone asks you this question, know what to expect if you say yes. You could find yourself at the receiving end of anything, right down to the tea-flavoured basundi that you may have to shove down your throat as a social nicety.
OR you could stop being a racist and gulp down the tea plain and black!