At this point, you’ve probably encountered chai countless times here in the U.S. at restaurants, stores, tea shops, and coffee shops (the “Chai Tea Latte” is still my go-to Starbucks order). But what is it exactly? And how did it get so popular here in the U.S.? Let’s take a tasty deep-dive.
Chai, also known as Masala Chai, is a popular beverage that originated in India and is now enjoyed all over the world. It is made by brewing black tea with a blend of aromatic spices and milk, giving it a rich and flavorful taste. Chai is not only delicious, but it also has several health benefits and a rich cultural history. I always love it when a flavorful drink has health benefits as well: it makes me feel less guilty about downing gallons of it.
In India, chai was first brewed as a medicinal beverage. The word “chai” actually means tea in Hindi, so technically the ubiquitous phrase “chai tea” is redundant, but who am I to split hairs? Here in the West, “chai” has come to refer to just about any combination of black tea and milk. The traditional blend of spices used in masala chai varies by region, but typically includes cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, ginger, and black pepper. The spices are combined with black tea and brewed in water before being simmered with milk and sweetened with sugar or honey. While traveling in India, I had the pleasure of seeing (and smelling) chai brewed in several homes. Everyone had their own unique recipe and they were all delicious.
How To Enjoy Chai
Chai is a versatile drink that can be enjoyed hot or cold, and it can be prepared in a variety of ways to suit different tastes. Some people (like yours truly) prefer a stronger, spicier chai, while others prefer a milder, sweeter version. Chai can also be made with different types of milk, such as cow’s milk, soy milk, or almond milk, depending on dietary preferences (I’m an almond milk girl, obvi).
One of the reasons chai has become so popular around the world is its many health benefits. The medicinal properties of tea are well-known, and the black tea used to make chai is especially beneficial. Black tea is high in antioxidants, which can help reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease. The spices used in chai, such as ginger and cinnamon, have anti-inflammatory properties and can help boost the immune system. Chai has also been found to aid digestion and improve circulation. So when you sip that warm cup of chai, you’re doing your body a favor. All of that added sugar might be another story, but that will be our little secret.
In addition to its health benefits, chai also has a rich cultural history. In India, chai is more than just a beverage; it is a social tradition that brings people together. Chai is often served to guests as a sign of hospitality, as I soon found out during my stay in India. Socially, it is common to see people drinking chai in groups at tea stalls and cafes, much like our coffee culture here.
Chai is also an important part of Indian street food culture, with chai wallahs (tea sellers) preparing and serving the beverage to passersby on the streets. In the busier neighborhoods you can find a chai wallah (or, if they’re women, chai wallis) on just about every street corner. And no, I can’t count the number of chai stalls I hit up while walking the streets of Delhi. It had to have been less than a hundred. Yeah, pretty sure.
Chai has also become a popular cultural export, with chai tea blends and accessories available in stores and cafes around the world. In Western countries, chai has become a popular alternative to traditional coffee drinks, with many people opting for a warm and comforting chai latte instead of a regular latte or cappuccino. It might be a while before we’ve got chai stalls on our busy streets, but a girl can dream. I can still easily pop into a Starbucks whenever I need to calm my fix for that creamy drink
Finding the Right Masala Chai
If you’re a tea connoisseur, finding an authentic masala chai is a must. Even if (gasp) you’re not that into tea, you might find this delicious drink to be a good alternative to sugary sodas or highly caffeinated coffees. You can find pre-made mixes at grocery stores, but with the right spice kit, it shouldn’t be hard to make this healthy drink from scratch. As for recipes, I’ve got you covered.
If you enjoyed this article or have suggestions on how we can improve it, please leave us a comment below. Also, make sure to check out other articles I’ve created or stories I’ve written about food culture – here.