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Tea History & Culture

The Rich History of Chai Tea

December 7, 2021

This delightful, steaming cup of tea that everyone loves, is full of rich history that dates back over 5,000 years. Chai tea contains Assam black tea, as well as a mixture of aromatic spices, which was passed down through many generations and is now many customers’ favorite tea! In this article, we’ll be exploring the history of chai, and what’s inside each steaming cup.

What is Chai Tea?

Chai is a Hindi word that means “tea.” Although the origin of masala chai remains a mystery, the original chai tea comes from South Asia. The Assam region in India is where the origins of chai tea are found. Native tea plants were commonly used by South Asians in ancient times as forms of herbal medicine. They also appeared to be able to treat simple illnesses such as the common cold. Chai tea has been loved throughout the centuries due to its many health benefits. 

Traditional chai spices are black tea mixed with cinnamon, star anise, and cardamom. However, chai recipes vary from one household to another and from region to region, as they were passed down through many different generations. The modern chai latte is made by steeping Assam black tea leaves in boiled whole milk.

In the early 1700s, chai tea cultures had spread all the way from East Asia and Western Europe. The British East India Company began cultivating the crop in British India in the 1830s.

India was overwhelmed with the beginning introduction of morning chai. A lot of the Indians now drink at least two to three cups daily at the very minimum. Traditional chai tea was introduced to the world around the 1900s. It later quickly became a popular drink. 

What’s Inside a Cup of Chai?

Traditional chai drinks can be made in many different places, so there is no single recipe that defines chai. These are the main ingredients that chai contains.

Tea: Most popular chai bases are the Darjeeling and Assam black tea from India. You can also make chai with different types of green teas such as the South American herb Yerba Mate and the South African herbal red rooibos ingredients. There are also herbal blends that contain no tea leaves and are made entirely from herbs.

Sweetener: While honey, brown sugar, and white sugar are the most common chai sweeteners for maintaining sweetness, other sugars such as demerara or turbinado can also be used when making chai. Jaggery is an unrefined sugar from cane that is used in India and is almost always used when producing chai. 

Milk: Buffalo milk is popular milk used in India when making chai. The modern-day version of chai is more commonly made with alternative dairy products like soy milk, coconut milk, almond, and rice. To have the best tasting chai possible it may be necessary to steep strong chai in water and add some milk to it. You will find many recipes telling you to simmer the spices with a mixture of milk and water or to even use all milk when doing so.

Spices: Spices such as chai (also known as masala) can vary depending on where they are originating and the cultural preferences. Cardamom, ginger, and cloves were the most common chai spices, and they were all easily available in India to be used in the production of chai. Traditional recipes may include vanilla, nutmeg, and star anise. Bay leaf, allspice, and cacao became increasingly popular as chai moved west. In some recipes, cumin and coriander may also be a selection of ingredients to be used.

Chai tasting

There are many chai recipes, so the beverage can be made in many different ways depending on what ingredients are used. Chai with a lot of ginger and black peppercorns may have a fiery taste. Other chai that contains more vanilla, cinnamon, or nutmeg might leave behind a lasting sweeter taste on your palate. Some chai teas may have a bitter earthiness from cacao or saffron. Other times, fennel and cumin could have a more savory flavor.

Many chai teas are made differently based on the culture in which you are purchasing, and it is helpful to know and understand the different varieties and rich cultural history of chai tea. These teas are made all over the world.

Interested in brewing your own steaming cup?