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Tony Webster / Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Tony Webster / Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Don't "Chai" and "Tea" Both Mean the Same Thing?

Tony Webster / Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Tony Webster / Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Next time you order a chai tea from your corner coffee shop, take a moment and appreciate your killer multi-lingual skills. After all, etymologically speaking, the words “chai” and “tea” refer to exactly the same thing, just in different languages. So what’s the deal?

Almost 5,000 years ago, when folks in China started sipping a yummy, steeped beverage made from dried leaves and buds, different regions had different names for it. Most Chinese languages, including Mandarin and Cantonese, referred to the stuff by a word that is pronounced like “chá.” But other dialects, including Min Nan Chinese, which was spoken around Fujian, Malaysia, Indonesia and Taiwan, referred to it by a word that sounds more like "te."

Take It To Go

Flash forward about four and a half thousand years, and you have the exportation of tea via land and sea routes to the West. Portuguese traders, who are credited with first bringing the herbal drink to Europe in the late sixteenth century, followed a trade route through Macao, and thus used a derivation on the Cantonese: cha, shai, choy. It was the same story with overland routes to Central Asia, the Arabian Peninsula and Russia, hence the use of “chai” in those languages, too.

Alternatively, Dutch traders, who had a corner on the tea market in Western Europe—including Spain, France, Germany and Italy—got most of their goods from the Fujian region, and therefore referred to it by derivations on its Min Nan Chinese name: té, tèh, tey. Also, because that was an era of colonial powers, many of those European countries exported the word “te” to their colonial regions, which is why languages like Javanese say “tèh,” too.

That is, of course, an oversimplification of how the word has evolved in every language. A lot of languages, particularly in places where the tea plant grew naturally, have their own name for tea, too. Other languages use the word “tea” or “chai” to refer to lots of different kinds of drinks.

And then—just to further complicate things—there are the modern American marketing geniuses, who want to make us think that “chai” means “milky and spicy tea,” “tea” means the herbal stuff we can see through, and “Tazo” means something else entirely.

“Tazo,” for the record, seems to be just a clever brand name referring to specific blends of tea. While there’s a whole mythology of the word printed on the side of tea boxes, I haven’t been able to find any historically verifiable etymology of that word. Either way—chai, tea or Tazo—sign me up for a large.

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Big Questions
Why Do Fruitcakes Last So Long?
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Fruitcake is a shelf-stable food unlike any other. One Ohio family has kept the same fruitcake uneaten (except for periodic taste tests) since it was baked in 1878. In Antarctica, a century-old fruitcake discovered in artifacts left by explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910 expedition remains “almost edible,” according to the researchers who found it. So what is it that makes fruitcake so freakishly hardy?

It comes down to the ingredients. Fruitcake is notoriously dense. Unlike almost any other cake, it’s packed chock-full of already-preserved foods, like dried and candied nuts and fruit. All those dry ingredients don’t give microorganisms enough moisture to reproduce, as Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, explained in 2014. That keeps bacteria from developing on the cake.

Oh, and the booze helps. A good fruitcake involves plenty of alcohol to help it stay shelf-stable for years on end. Immediately after a fruitcake cools, most bakers will wrap it in a cheesecloth soaked in liquor and store it in an airtight container. This keeps mold and yeast from developing on the surface. It also keeps the cake deliciously moist.

In fact, fruitcakes aren’t just capable of surviving unspoiled for months on end; some people contend they’re better that way. Fruitcake fans swear by the aging process, letting their cakes sit for months or even years at a stretch. Like what happens to a wine with age, this allows the tannins in the fruit to mellow, according to the Wisconsin bakery Swiss Colony, which has been selling fruitcakes since the 1960s. As it ages, it becomes even more flavorful, bringing out complex notes that a young fruitcake (or wine) lacks.

If you want your fruitcake to age gracefully, you’ll have to give it a little more hooch every once in a while. If you’re keeping it on the counter in advance of a holiday feast a few weeks away, the King Arthur Flour Company recommends unwrapping it and brushing it with whatever alcohol you’ve chosen (brandy and rum are popular choices) every few days. This is called “feeding” the cake, and should happen every week or so.

The aging process is built into our traditions around fruitcakes. In Great Britain, one wedding tradition calls for the bride and groom to save the top tier of a three-tier fruitcake to eat until the christening of the couple’s first child—presumably at least a year later, if not more.

Though true fruitcake aficionados argue over exactly how long you should be marinating your fruitcake in the fridge, The Spruce says that “it's generally recommended that soaked fruitcake should be consumed within two years.” Which isn't to say that the cake couldn’t last longer, as our century-old Antarctic fruitcake proves. Honestly, it would probably taste OK if you let it sit in brandy for a few days.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Stuffing and Dressing?
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For carbohydrate consumers, nothing completes a Thanksgiving meal like stuffing—shovelfuls of bread, celery, mushrooms, and other ingredients that complement all of that turkey protein.

Some people don’t say “stuffing,” though. They say “dressing.” In these calamitous times, knowing how to properly refer to the giant glob of insulin-spiking bread seems necessary. So what's the difference?

Let’s dismiss one theory off the bat: Dressing and stuffing do not correlate with how the side dish is prepared. A turkey can be stuffed with dressing, and stuffing can be served in a casserole dish. Whether it’s ever seen the inside of a bird is irrelevant, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong and should be met with suspicion, if not outright derision.

The terms are actually separated due to regional dialects. “Dressing” seems to be the favored descriptor for southern states like Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, while “stuffing” is preferred by Maine, New York, and other northern areas. (Some parts of Pennsylvania call it "filling," which is a bit too on the nose, but to each their own.)

If “stuffing” stemmed from the common practice of filling a turkey with carbs, why the division? According to The Huffington Post, it may have been because Southerners considered the word “stuffing” impolite, so never embraced it.

While you should experience no material difference in asking for stuffing or dressing, when visiting relatives it might be helpful to keep to their regionally-preferred word to avoid confusion. Enjoy stuffing yourselves.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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