When the average American thinks of chai, I would venture to say what they envision is what you can purchase at coffee shops or cafes and is expected to be a pretty milky, sweet, and spicy black tea concoction made at the espresso machine with steaming milk.
Now, if you walk into a restaurant in India and ask for chai they will bring you a cup of unsweetened tea. You have to ask for masala chai (masala means a mixture of spices)– we think of chai and mean masala chai. No self-respecting tea seller in India would sell you tea already mixed with spices. They expect you to add the spices at home. Each street vendor in India prides his or herself on their special blend of spices. The term, Masala got dropped as chai came to the U.S.
Indians didn’t grow tea until the British brought it over from China. The Hindi word for tea, chai, is derived from the Northern Chinese term, cha. In Southern China, the word for tea is te (it’s a different pronunciation of the same characters). So, it stands to reason that countries exposed to the Northern half of China reinterpreted the word for tea that way. Other countries use derivations of cha too, like Russian tchai.
Indian Masala Chai literally means ”spiced tea” and reflects how Indian food combines multiple spices and even some dairy for a satisfying flavor. This isn’t the case in China, where the food is not focused on dairy or sweets. The tea reflects the cuisine. In Turkey, milk is not used to make chai, instead, sugar is used and a lot of times they will add fresh ginger and orange peel.
I recall how the Beatles made traveling to India cool in the late 1960’s—perhaps we can thank them for chai’s introduction in the U.S.? So many young Americans went to India and tried chai but couldn’t find it back home in America. In 1981 I first heard of chai while I was a student at UC Santa Cruz. I have sipped chai from street vendors a few times during visits to India over the years. When I travel, I love to drink the local tea.
I remember a chai stall on the road—a 6×6-foot shack with a big aluminum pot that looked 100 years old, boiling 10 gallons of a concoction of tea, sugar, spices, and local unpasteurized milk. When you order chai in India, it’s typically served in 4-6 ounces. The idea is you drink a little bit and then come back later in the day. Their version of recycled cups is pretty interesting because they give you a cup made of clay from a stack. It doesn’t take long to drink the chai and when you’re done, you throw the cup in the road and shatter it. The remnants of your cup turn into dust in a few days. I’m convinced kilns all over India crank out these disposable cups.
If you think of it, the way chai is made in the U.S. now, it has become an American drink, prepared with steamed milk and perhaps foam—we love our foam in the U.S. In India, you boil milk on the stove. You can find Masala Chai as we know it in Europe and other countries. I think the two places where Masala Chai is popular are the United States and India.
We carry several chai offerings at Mighty Leaf Tea because this style of tea is a category unto itself. If I had to come up with 20 tasting chai blends, I could probably do it. You can have so many variations, even with the same chai blends. You can brew chai with 100% milk or 25% milk to water ratio. You can add tons of sugar or no sugar. When looking for chai, consider the spice blend. Which spices and how much of each are used in chai? While turmeric plays an active role in Indian cuisine, it’s not typically used to spice chai. Basil is not used in chai either. Chai will have cinnamon, ginger and cardamom. Maybe there’s some sort of heat—black pepper? You might see clove in a chai blend. A lot of American chai blends use vanilla—you’d never see that in India. Some blends use star anise. Our version of Masala Chai is a Kolkata-style chai with cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, black pepper, and clove. Our Bombay Chai, on the other hand is comprised of cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, and star anise. The difference between the two blends is noticeable.
The tea itself plays an important role. Most Indian black tea is strong and black and for a good masala chai, you need an assertive tea—small leaf teas give a lot of color and flavor. When we are blending and sourcing tea for chai, we are looking for strong teas. Our Masala Chai uses Assam tea—my favorite origin for milk teas and also has some Nilgiri black tea in the blend. Bombay Chai uses tea from similar regions but overall offers a lighter tea character indicative of South India. Some chai blends use Chinese black tea for its smooth quality. Others might use a straightforward-bodied African tea. There are even some chai blends made from green tea that follows a lesser-known tradition in Northern India with cinnamon, cardamom, and almonds. Kolkata-style chai tends to use local teas (typically Assam and a few others) and the spices tend to be heavier on cardamom, with less pepper for a more sweet, not quite as zesty-hot drink.
Chai has a really broad taste range. Whatever people are exposed to early on will impact what they think of tea. If you ask an average person in China if they drink tea, they will say yes, and probably refer to Chinese green tea. With a masala chai, most people will think of the flavor profile they were exposed to the first time. I would encourage you to embrace the nuances of each blend of chai rather than trying to discover “true chai.” True chai can be whatever you enjoy, so open up your mind. Each chai is an expression of the person who created it, whether it’s being served up at a stall in Kolkata or from a company in the U.S. Every chai recipe has a history to be enjoyed for what it is.