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What is Chai Tea?

Chai refers to one of the most common, most comforting drinks in the history of humanity. In India, it is an integral part of the everyday, from steaming hot cups set between friends talking about their days to the business people on the side of the road sucking down piping hot chai from tiny glasses, getting their thrills from holding the rim and drinking as fast as their mouths will allow them.

Chai, a thick tea made with several ingredients, originated in India and has become a part of life across the globe since its inception. Every household has a different chai recipe, but this drink is universal in the way it can bring people together to make new happy memories.


History of Chai

In Ancient India, chai was not the word associated with tea, instead being associated with a blend of herbs and spices that were combined in warm water and steeped for a very long time before they were eaten. No tea leaves were used in the earliest chai, with seasonal herbs and spices being the main ingredients. Tea leaves were first consumed like a vegetable. The leaves were chewed slowly so the flavors of the leaves could be enjoyed, but then they were swallowed. Usually, the leaves were served with garlic and oil and eaten by the mouthful.

Tea leaves themselves are indigenous to China, despite tea’s heavy association with Britain and India. It wasn’t until the 1830s that the British started planting tea in India, also known as the jewel on the crown of Great Britain at that time. It was around then that tea started seeping into Indian culture, both literally and figuratively. It took a while, since the first real tea drinkers in India were able to afford the luxurious product that until then had been entirely monopolized and price controlled by Chinese tea growers. The word “chai” shifted in meaning from “blend of spices steeped in water” to “blend of tea and spices steeped in milk and water” to finally just “tea.” Through time, chai gained in popularity and more tea plants were grown, flooding the market with excess tea and lower prices. By the 1960s it became unusual for one to walk the streets of India and not see a chai wallah, or a “tea person” around making tea at a roadside tea stand. These baristas of tea brewed up hundreds of cups of steaming hot tea daily, often pouring the tea into a cup from a very high distance to help cool the tea slightly before it reached the customer.

Today, chai wallahs can still be seen in India, but with less frequency as specialty tea shops are beginning to pop up across various regions. Chai is gaining more worldly popularity as well, with many American shops adopting some form of Indian inspired chai to their menus. Chai has also spread to other parts of the world, with many people having “chai parties” to celebrate the drink and spend time with their friends and family collectively. In Japan, you will also discover the influence of chai transcends food as there is a girl band called “CHAI” who wants to make sure everyone feels good about themselves and their lives through their feel-good music. Somehow the message of chai as a drink, that everyone should be comfortable and enjoy themselves, is translated into a positive musical message as well.


Are there Health Benefits to Drinking Chai?

It depends on the kind of chai! Herbs and spices have been used in healthcare for centuries, and chai is no different! It is a classic ayurvedic drink, and many people swear by it as a remedy for a variety of ailments. Cinnamon and ginger, common ingredients in chai, are helpful in soothing nausea and combating diarrhea. Cardamom is helpful with digestion, but it is also believed to help with detoxifying the body. Cardamom may also be helpful with providing allergy relief and improving circulation. Chai is also thought to help prevent cell damage because of the high number of antioxidants it contains.

Chai has much less caffeine in it than coffee, so some people use it to wean themselves off of coffee without the extreme shock to the system that it would be to completely stop caffeine intake. Some people drink chai the way others do coffee, drinking several glasses throughout the day. Others still never drink coffee but will enjoy chai occasionally. For regular chai drinkers, the effects of any health benefits would be more easily identifiable than for the chai drinker who only has a mug or two every now and again.


How do I Make Chai?

As with most kinds of cooking and drink making, there are different variations of chai and how to make it depending on who you ask. A typical chai will have a black tea base and the spices used will include ginger, cardamom, ground black pepper, cloves, and cinnamon. These will be mixed into water and a thick milk, which is usually a whole fat milk of some type. Cow, camel, and buffalo milk are all common for traditional chai, but for those who do not like animal produced milk, soy milk or oat milk are good alternatives. Sometimes you will also discover your chai is flavored with lemongrass or turmeric.

When making your own chai, feel free to experiment with the spices used and tailor the amounts used to your own personal taste. An easy recipe for chai is to take your spice blend, or the masala, and combine it with 6 cups of water over high heat and bring it to a boil. Once it has reached a boil, turn the heat down to medium low and simmer for ten minutes. After ten minutes have passed, remove the pot from heat, add two or three black tea bags, Darjeeling preferred, and let them steep for five minutes. Add 2 cups of milk of your choice and a half cup of tightly packed demerara sugar or grated piloncillo sugar. Bring the tea back to a boil over high heat and then whisk the mixture until the sugar fully dissolves. Strain the solids, including the tea bags, through a sieve and discard. Serve your tea hot, whipped cream topped with a sprinkle of cinnamon or nutmeg an optional indulgence.


Types of Chai

There are beautiful variations of chai, all thanks to the regional preferences across chai drinking countries. Chai’s differences are also attributed to the type and growing location of the tea plant, which will affect the flavors of the tea.

  • Kashmiri chai is a pinkish chai made from the tea leaves grown in Kashmiri exclusively. It is also called Kashmiri Kahwa. This chai is made with green tea instead of black and it uses saffron strands to impart both flavor and a little color. It is usually served for lunch, as it is a lighter chai.

  • Sulaimani Chai, also called “Ghava” or “Kattan Chaya” is a simpler black tea made in the usual way minus the spices, with only lemon added for flavor. This tea is served after a heavy meal, as it is believed to help with digestion.

  • Tulsi Chai or Basil Chai is a black tea with added basil. It is usually made in the morning and may or may not contain milk, though it usually does.

  • Masala Chai is the chai most familiar to westerners. It is usually found on American menus as a “chai latte.” This is the spicy, sweet, thick tea drink that is consumed more and more every day across the US.

  • Adrak or Ginger Chai is a wintertime favorite. Fresh ginger is grated over the chai as it is boiling, adding that spicy flavor to the otherwise slightly sweet chai. This is not only a cozy drink, but also a home remedy for the common cold.

  • Bombay Cutting Chai is so flavorful and strong, it is served at roadside tea stands called “tapris” in glasses only half full. It is a stronger, more flavorful version of the more common masala chai.

Despite the differences in types and flavors, all chai has the same four basic components: Milk, spices, a sweetener, and tea. There are various recipes available online for your perusal, so take some time and give chai a try if you haven’t already!


Why Do Some People Call it Chai Tea?

This is colloquial. There are several different names for chai, including chai tea, chai masala, and chai latte. “Chai tea” translates to “tea tea” so it is the most awkward of the many names chai has been given. Whatever you call it, this is a drink that can be enjoyed by anyone. As chai continues to rise in popularity, jump on the bandwagon and have a sip.


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