Masala Chai

Photograph Courtesy of [Vitalii Shastun] ©

How the popular spiced tea came to be

Text by Jane Pettigrew

CHAI: from Chinese Cantonese chá or chàh, and then probably through Persia as châ or chây into India. In English, char was commonly used slang amongst the military forces in the 19th and 20th centuries; chai appeared in English in the 20th century.

Many tea companies in the West today include a spiced chai amongst their loose or bagged teas. Almost every coffee bar now offers chai lattes, chai frappés, or iced chai; and freezer cabinets of grocery stores often include chai ice cream and sorbets amongst the more traditional strawberry, mango, or pistachio flavors. Hot, spicy, sweet chai has actually been available in the United States as a commercial product since the launch of Oregon Chai in 1994. Four women (Heather Howitt, Tedde McMillen, Carla Powell, and Lori Spencer) went on a trip to India, discovered and fell in love with chai, came back home, and decided to re-create the drink as a concentrate for the food-service industry. By 1996, sales had risen by 469 percent, and by the year 2000, sales were worth more than $15 million. Since then, more and more people have enjoyed the Indian specialty beverage, either as an everyday drink in cafés or at home, and so the fashion has grown.

But where did it all begin? Some say that spiced hot drinks date back to the Indian court more than 5,000 years ago, when an ancient king created a medicinal healing drink using tea and many different spices. The modern story tells how, in the days of the Raj, when the British were producing black tea—first in Assam, then in Darjeeling and the southern Indian Nilgiri Hills—the Indian population did not drink very much of that tea, or chai. So, in order to promote British tea in the early part of the 20th century, the Indian Tea Association (set up and owned by the British growers) started encouraging workers in other industries across India to drink tea. They urged owners of factories and mills and other workplaces to allow their workers to take a break for 10 minutes or so to drink a cup of tea, and the Association also encouraged chai wallahs to serve up tea on busy railway platforms and on the crowded trains that crisscrossed the country, carrying hundreds of thousands of people every day. Given that the traditional British cup was a mix of black tea, milk, and sugar, that is what became popular amongst the local population. Local vendors created their own special recipes, using different types of milk and sweetener and adding spices to give the tea a warming ginger kick or sweet note of cardamom or nutmeg. But as tea grew in popularity, the preparation developed along different lines from the English method of steeping the leaves in a teapot and then adding a measure of milk and sugar. In India, for ease and speed of brewing large quantities, the chai wallahs simply put everything into a pan or kettle and boiled everything together to draw the strength from the small particles of tea and balance their flavor against the other ingredients. And so, masala chai was born.

Everyone in India has their own preferred chai recipe and method of preparation, and the list of ingredients varies hugely according to region, family, and tradition. So it has always been impossible to pin down what should or should not go into a chai mix. The tea is almost always CTC Assam or Southern Indian black. The milk can be cow’s milk, buff alo’s milk, condensed milk, or evaporated milk, or a mix of half water and half milk. The sweetener can be white sugar, brown sugar, palm sugar, jaggery, or honey. The spices can include black pepper, cloves, nutmeg, fresh root ginger, cinnamon, and cardamom, and some people add star anise, fennel seeds, cumin, coriander, chilli, fresh basil (called tulsi), or fresh mint. And the only way to really make chai that has an authentic Indian taste and texture is to simmer all the ingredients together. Steeping a tea bag blend and then adding milk and sugar once the tea liquor has been poured into the cup does not deliver a drink that bears much resemblance to the real thing. On a cold day, there is nothing more comforting and revitalizing than the thick, sweet, spicy liquid to warm you through to the tips of your fingers and toes.