An ancient medicine, a sweetly spiced coffee shop drink, a way to connect with friends and family? Chai can be so many things to so many people. When I first started brewing it in 2001, I fell in love with the aroma of the ground spices, the way it sparked my imagination, warmed my body and fed my soul.
But exactly what is Chai Tea?
“Chai” is a common translation of the Hindi word “chāy” simply meaning “tea”. Around the world, the two most common names for tea are: 1. A variation on “chai” or “cha” 2. A variation on “tay” or “tea”. So in saying Chai Tea, you are literally saying "tea tea”!
When we say Chai Tea, we are referring to a beverage from the Indian subcontinent where people have for ages boiled local spices with black tea, milk and sugar. In India, the word for tea is chai, so when the first Westerners who traveled to India and fell in love with this popular street food returned home, they told stories of a famed tea called chai.
More accurately, they were drinking Masala Chai. “Masala” is a Hindi word meaning “spice mix”, so “Masala Chai” loosely means spiced tea.
Whether you call it chai tea, masala chai or just chai, it is a delicious blend of mixed spices boiled with black tea, milk and sugar.
Where Does Chai Come From?
The history of chai dates back to over 5000 years ago! And believe it or not, the original chai contained no actual "tea" or rather Camellia sinensis (the plant that we use to make tea) leaves. Instead, it was a blend of spices used in Eastern and specifically Ayurvedic medicine as a healing beverage. Milk and sugar were added later to make the spices a bit more palatable.
The addition of black tea leaves is thought to have been popularized in the mid-1800s when the Camellia sinensis assamica tea variety was discovered in India. During that time, tea was beginning to be cultivated by the British, who ruled the continent and had more than a small obsession with “the China drink”, tea. This was the beginning of modern chai as we know it. People added tropical sweet spices to locally grown tea and a culinary revolution was born!
In India, it took a few more years to realize that the local workers in the factories, the textile mills and the mines would also improve their efficiency if they were given the benefit of the tea break and a cup of tea. Patrons followed and tea consumption then developed rapidly.
This generated the introduction of a typically Indian cup, the spicy milk tea brew called masala chai, which quickly became part of the Indian way of life. Indeed, with the Indians’ innate sense for business, hundreds and then thousands of chai wallahs – small business operators – set up their street stalls for brewing and selling their masala chai from early morning to late in the night. In this way, chai has come to be sold on every street corner across India and is a symbol of hospitality, friendship and connection.
Types of Chai
As chai in the Western world has grown in popularity, and we have begun to riff on traditional chai – innovating for health benefits, flavor and availability. Today, you can find masala blended with green tea, caffeine-free rooibos and even oolong on the grocery shelves today. Chai is often considered a flavor and is found in ice cream and other sweets as well as liquors and beers.
The traditional chai made with black tea, sugar, a proprietary spice mix and blended with milk.
The addition of an espresso shot to a chai latte has been branded “dirty chai” Like a Turkish coffee with tea. I prefer to keep my tea and coffee separate. :)
Rooibos chai is a naturally decaffeinated version. It is made with a South African evergreen shrub know locally as “red bush” and is known for its high levels of antioxidants and its sweet, honeyed taste.
Made with or without tea, cacao nibs can fill in for the base of this delicious drink, which is essentially a spiced drinking chocolate. Chocolate and chai spice are a match made in heaven.
How to Make Chai
The traditional way of preparing chai was boiling a mixture of local milk (from a yaak, buffalo or cow) and water with loose black tea and spices, wrapped in a cloth for easy straining. There are various blends of spices, which vary according to local customs, personal inspiration and seasonal availability.
Spices most commonly found in chai are those grown in India and Sri Lanka, where chai as we know it is the West comes from. Think: cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, cloves and black peppercorns. Sometimes star anise nutmeg, allspice and turmeric are added too.
1. Clarity and Alertness
It can wake you up! Black tea leaves naturally contain caffeine and can give you lasting energy and focus of a cup of coffee without the jitters.
2. Helps Digestion
Can help with nausea relief! Ginger not only adds a little kick to your chai, but also can help soothe an upset stomach and nausea.
Multiple studies have shown higher antioxidant levels and "flavonoids" within one hour of drinking tea. Research is ongoing, but it definitely packs a health punch! Ginger aids digestion by improving circulation and delivering oxygen to organs so they can perform optimally. Black pepper helps the pancreas produce digestive enzymes! (1, 2)
4. Ache and pain reliever
Clove has historically been used as a natural pain remedy, especially in toothaches!
Where to Buy Chai
With personal preference in mind, it’s fun to make your own chai at home using a good quality black tea and all of your favorite spices. This drink, though deeply rooted in tradition is easy to customize with your choice of milk, tea, spices and sweetener.
I suggest ordering a chai latte at your local coffee shop or tea house and taste what you like and don’t like about it! Maybe you’re not into cardamom but love cinnamon? It’s all about what tastes best to you!
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