To call the masala chai a treat would be an understatement. Within a cup of masala chai you have a whole ecosystem of flavors, aromas, tastes and experiences. This Indian tea is not just dynamic but it is delicious too, having traveled far and wide from its original homeland, to coffee and tea houses all over the world. Want a bit more spice in your life? Come and enjoy the masala chai!
Ayurveda for better health
Just as the custom of drinking tea in China is quite antiquated, so too is tea consumption in India. The Assam region of India is even one of the birthplaces of tea. While tea was enjoyed in ancient China both for medicinal and recreational purposes, tea in India mainly continued to be consumed for medicinal properties the drink was believed to have. One legend about masala chai’s origins claims that a royal court, some 5000-9000 years ago in what is now India, or perhaps in Thailand (the stories vary) a great king invented the drink as a health tonic. The beverage’s purpose was to be a purifying elixir following Ayurvedic medicinal practices.
Tea plantations in Munnar, Kerala, India
Ayurveda is an ancient Indic form of holistic medicine. The practices of Ayurveda are believed to have originated in ancient times and developed more robustly from around 1500 to 500 B.C. Some of the beliefs of Ayurveda include balancing the elements and makeup of the body, mind and spirit through proper diet and regulation of bodily functions. Ayurveda often utilizes various herbs and spices in a diet to help balance the elements of the body and help cleanse it of any impurities.
But the masala chai we recognize today was still much different than its ancient predecessor. For starters, the original masala contained no tea leaves! But in the 1830’s during the colonial period in India, the British East India Company began cultivating commercial plantations to rival the Chinese monopoly on tea. The plantations in the Assam region began producing black tea, which was then added to the masala chai recipe.
Tea was still an expensive commodity, and mostly used for sales abroad and back to Britain. And so tea consumption among the general populace in India was not widespread. But this all changed when the British-owned Indian Tea Association began popularizing tea in India. The company began encouraging the industrial and production sector to provide English style tea breaks to their workers. This English style tea time saw tea prepared in the English way, with milk and sugar added into the drink. With independent tea vendors jazzing up the drinks by adding in additional spices, herbs and ingredients, allowing them to still provide tasty drinks, while not having to use or buy as much expensive tea. This was frowned upon by the Indian Tea Association, who of course wanted people to spend more money on their tea! But whether they liked it or not, the drink caught on, and in the 60’s reached even newer heights of popularity.
The production of tea had become mechanized and allowed tea to be affordable to the larger Indian consumer market. The method of tea production, Crush, Tear, Curl or CTC, which includes the leaves being crushed and torn with a series of rollers, produces a flavor that is more bitter than standard dried tea leaves. The flavor of the CTC leaves gave masala chai, when mixed with the various spices, sugar and herbs a unique flavor that is still beloved to this day!
Street vendors of masala chai are called chai wallahs, who often both brew and serve tea. They can be found all over India today, and even deliver tea to offices and business establishments. Masala chai is often consumed at breakfast with many people drinking a daily average of 4 or so cups every day. When guests pay a visit to a home, the host will often serve chai.
Indian tea stall
Spread beyond India
As masala chai spread around the world and gained popularity outside of India, other countries began creating chai in their own ways. Especially during the 60’s with many Western visitors travelling to India (think the hippie trail, the Beatles, etc.) returned to their home countries with amazing spiritual insight from their travels to the ancient and spiritual country, and also with the idea of masala chai. While many countries in the West mostly began consuming masala chai in the form of tea bags, in America masala chai has become a hero of sorts in the café and coffeehouse world. The ingredients and methods of preparation vary greatly from the original masterpiece of masala chai, but masala chai, or simply just “chai” (which is just the Hindustani word for “tea”) are mainstays of many cafes today which prepare high quality masala chai variations.
Indian handmade chai cup or Kulad
And what are some of these variations? In America, there are many, as the takes on masala chai can be as diverse to each café as there are cafes in the country! For starters, the CTC style tea of authentic Indian chai is swapped out for loose leaf tea, or even rooibos, or even teabags. American variations also use honey or cane sugar to sweeten the chai, and may use milk as a base or ice cream for a frozen style of the beverage. As for the Ayurveda inspired spices and flavors, many American cafes will instead use a premade tea blend or a concentrate to substitute the homemade spices and herbs found in Indian masala chai. Some cafes will even serve masala chai with espresso to create a whole new type of maslaa chai. The traditional flavors and spices of Indian masala chai tend to be hot, spicy and vivacious, while American and other styles of masala chai tend to be sweeter and much milder by comparison.
Traditional ingredients and preparation
Masala chai does not have a single formalized or set recipe or preparation method. It is said each family has their own recipe and Way of Tea for the beverage, but masala chai does have a few key ingredients and methods that are mostly universal to all styles of brewing of this Ayurvedic elixir.
Generally black tea is used (some regions within and outside of India may use green tea), where it is steeped to attain a strong flavor. Then four core ingredients are usually used, milk (soy milk or non-dairy milk is sometimes used), sugar (white, brown or even honey as a sweetener instead), cardamom and ginger. The drink is considered to be spicy and herbal in its notes and flavors. The core of the spice base is a magnificent mixture called karha which is made by grinding ginger and cardamom pods together. Some other common spices found in the karha spice mix include cinnamon and cloves and even black pepper serving as a supplement.
Masala chai spice
As for preparation, masala chai is brewed by simmering or boiling milk, water, the tea, whichever sugars or sweetening ingredients chosen, and whole spices. The boiling of the liquid and all the solid ingredients together is a process known as “decoction”. The purpose of decoction is to allow the chemicals and nutrients from the solid ingredients to mix into the liquid by boiling them all together. When it comes to masala chai, the solid ingredients are skimmed or removed from the final tea before serving. Different styles and techniques of decoction exist, with some preferring to leave the ingredients to simmer and steep for a bit longer before separating the solid residue and ingredients from the tea.
The spice of life
From Ayurvediuc medicine, to a mid-day pick-me-up, masala chai has had a long and marvelous history. The legacy of masala chai and all its subsequent offshoots and resulting lineages continues to bring joy and refreshment to eager drinkers around the world. So, for a spicier and more dynamic tea experience, I highly recommend this unique and one of a kind tea beverage. You will not be disappointed when you bring this spicy and herbal panacea into your tea repertoire. As for me, I’d like to take mine with some extra cinnamon, and on a hot summer day like this, enjoy it under some shade!
- “Ayurveda.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 28 May 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ayurveda.
- Goodwin, Lindsey. “Did You Know Chai Tea Is Thousands of Years Old?” The Spruce Eats, The Spruce Eats, 23 Jan. 2019, www.thespruceeats.com/the-history-of-masala-chai-tea-765836.
- Goodwin, Lindsey. “The Pros, Cons, and Contents of CTC Tea.” The Spruce Eats, The Spruce Eats, 9 May 2019, www.thespruceeats.com/what-is-ctc-tea-765674.
- “Masala Chai.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 27 May 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masala_chai#cite_note-2.
- Stockwell, Anna. “How to Make Perfect Chai at Home.” Epicurious, Epicurious, 9 May 2017, www.epicurious.com/expert-advice/how-to-make-indian-masala-chai-tea-article.
- “How to Make [the Best] Chai [Ever].” The Hathi Cooks, 5 Jan. 2017, www.thehathicooks.com/how-to-make-best-chai-ever/.