Chai is the sweet, milky tea that everyone in India drinks cup after cup at any given time of the day. Chai is the Hindi word for tea, and in India often means just tea served with milk and sugar. However, and especially among tourists to India, the word chai is also used to mean masala chai or spiced tea.
Masala chai, then, can be flavoured with fragrant spices such as ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, black pepper or even star anise. Chai recipes vary by region, but also by household. Every housewife will have their own chai recipe, and their own favourite method for making chai.
India’s favourite drink
Chai is a big part of daily life in India. Morning starts with chai, and the day finishes with it. Chai is served after meals, and cup after cup of it are drunk at chai stands. This is where people meet over a steaming hot glass or steel cup of their favourite drink. Somehow, that hot steel cup or glass never seems to burn the fingers of the chai loving locals, and it is only tourists who complain.
Every visitor to India remembers that strong, sweet chai at Indian railway platforms, and one of the best parts of a train journey through India is the chai from the chai wallah in the train. (Chai wallah is the man who walks along the carriage from 5 am until late at night shouting “chai chai chai” as he goes.)
Unfortunately, train chai is not what it used to be. It is too often served in plastic cups, and one usually gets just a teabag with some lukewarm milky water. Instead of the slowly brewed, sweet and warm drink that used to be served in clay cups. Which were biodegradable and could be handily thrown out of the window afterwards.
Chai has become incredibly popular in coffee shops in the West, and it even comes in the form of tea bags in supermarkets. However, as chai really just means “tea”, those asking for “chai tea” in the local coffee shop are actually just asking for “tea tea”. “Chai tea latte”, then, is an interesting mix of Hindi, English and Italian words and translates simply as “tea tea milk”.
And in India, chai is rarely, if ever, decaf!
The art of making chai
Everyone has a recipe for their favourite chai, but most recipes involve loose black tea, water, milk, sugar and spices. Fresh ginger, cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks, whole cloves, black pepper, star anise, etc.
Everyone also has their favourite chai making techniques. The simplest way is to boil a mixture of milk, water, loose tea leaves, sugar and spices together. Some like to boil the water first before adding tea leaves and spices and then milk and sugar. Others like to mix everything together before bringing the whole lot to boil. The website chai-tea.org offers a few different recipes.
At its best, chai is a comforting, warming drink that also serves a good caffeine kick. Chai spices such as ginger, cloves, cardamom and cinnamon are also said to aid digestion.
History of tea in India
Tea is indigenous to the Assam region in India, but the first commercially produced teas were grown from seeds that were brought to India from China.
It is sometimes suggested that tea has been used medicinally in the traditional Indian medical system of Ayurveda. Many of the spices used masala chai are also used in the Ayurvedic healing system. However, commercial production of tea in India did not begin until the British East India Company started tea cultivation in the Assam region in the northeast of India.
The British East India Company had been importing tea to Britain mainly from China, but in 1834 its monopoly on trade with China ended. That is when it started serious tea cultivation in Assam. When the British government took over direct control of India from the East India Company, it too wanted to promote the tea industry. Tea cultivation increased and spread to other regions of India. By the 1840’s, regular shipments of tea from India were sent to auctions in London, and by 1888 Britain was importing more tea from India than from China.
Today India is one of the main tea growers in the world and, according to the UK Tea council, exports more than 12% of the world’s tea. Much of India’s tea is drunk at home, too – or at the local chai stand.