The History of Chai

Chai is generically known as ‘tea’ in most parts of the world and comes from the Hindi word of the same name. In the Western world (particularly the United States), “chai” means “masala chai” – tea brewed with aromatic spices and added with milk and sugar to turn it into something sweet and comforting a cold day. Chai is largely drunk in India where it is a mealtime staple.

Tea has been consumed in India for over 5000 years and was first grown in the Assam region, in northern India, near the foothills of the Himalayas. However, the use of tea in India stemmed from traditional medicine in South India where tea was viewed as having healing properties. Masala chai, the Indian spiced tea, was initially used in Ayurvedic medicine and the combination of tea and spices was said to cure ailments.

The recreational drinking of chai only began during the British colonial times when the British used Indian grown tea to rival that of China. Since tea was of great economic importance (and the British consumed enormous amounts imported from China), India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) became key players in the early 1900s. The British promoted tea breaks in their tea factories, leading to modern recreational consumption in India. However, many Indians preferred to brew their teas using the traditional method of adding spices.

Masala chai is a combination of spices which are ground and then steeped with tea. Traditional masala mixes blends several spices thought to bring health benefits according to Ayurveda medical texts. For example, the traditional masala blend is usually made up of cloves and cinnamon (for heart health), star anise and cardamom (for blood flow), and ginger and peppercorn (to boost immune system and ward off cold).

Chai is brewed with strong black tea from the Assam or Darjeeling regions. The masala (spices) are ground using a mortar and pestle. There are then several ways of brewing chai. Some households combine all the ingredients at the beginning by putting in tea leaves, masala and sugar into a saucepan filled with milk and water. This mixture is then brought to a boil and slowly simmered to release all the flavors. Other households first steep the tea, then strain the brewed tea into milk with the masala mix and honey.

In India, chai is so popular that vendors selling tea is found at every street corner. They are known as “chaiwallahs” or “tea boys”. They make tea in huge kettles over wood fire and store them in clay pots. Chai is known for its soothing effect and often acts as a digestive aid. These days, chai spice mixes can be found in most grocery stores. Conversely, coffee shops such as Starbucks often mislabel “masala chai” as “chai tea latte”.

A good recipe for a traditional chai is to use 1/2 teaspoon of ground masala mix, 4 teaspoons of tea leaves, 2 cups of whole milk, 1/2 cup of water and bring to a slow simmer. Allow the mix to simmer for about 8 minutes, turn the heat off and add 2 tablespoons of white sugar. Let the mix cool down a little and serve in clear glasses.