Walk into any Starbucks or “fill in a name” coffee shop today and you can easily order a chai tea, chai tea latte, masala chai, iced chai, or likely any number of variations. The word “chai” or “masala chai” has been popularized in the United States and is used to refer to a wide variety of spiced tea drinks that many American’s consume on a daily basis. But we can almost guarantee that what you are drinking, while having some similarities, is not traditional masala chai at all. So what is masala chai and what's its story? Let’s find out!
What is Masala?
Masala simply means a mixture of spices and is a popular word in India often used to describe different savory dishes. Tikka masala and garam masala, for example, each features a unique spice blend. You may be surprised at just how many varieties of masala are available and widely used in dishes!
Something that often makes masala spice blends different from other spice blends is that many specifically call for the included spices to be toasted in a pan first. No oil is necessary for this – they are toasted dry (there are exceptions of course). Then, the blend is crushed into a fine powder deeming it ready to be used for meals, drinks, and healing.
Not only are they adaptable, but they’re also used for Ayurvedic purposes. For example, it is believed that masala tea can heal the body by increasing temperature.
What is Masala Chai?
Masala Chai translates into spiced tea – and that’s exactly what it is. A delicious drink that brings comfort and an excellent array of spices together in one steaming hot cup. You’re likely to find the following ingredients in authentic masala chai – cardamom, cloves, star anise, peppercorns, ginger, cinnamon, and black tea. Peppercorns and ginger are the star ingredients as they are the spices bringing the heat to the tea.
If you've ever had a chai, you may have noticed a warming sensation from the added spices. This unique experience differentiates masala chai from many other warm drinks. If you purchased at a coffee shop, it may not be the same as having home-brewed chai, but it demonstrates the effect of the blend from popular Americanized versions.
Where Did Masala Chai Originate?
Masala chai has been around for somewhere between 5,000 – 9,000 years, depending on which source is consulted. Its origins include stories of kings and the royal court. Most stories at this point are legend, and no official history has been confirmed. However, they are interesting to read about and include some of the following tales.
One legend believes masala chai was created by a noble court in India, while other sources offer Thailand as the official origin. Most stories point to a king who created masala chai to bring "life" to its drinkers.
Initially, masala chai did not contain caffeine, instead just a combination of spices to create the unique flavor it offers. Many different recipes were created using various spices, and the tea was served both hot and cold. It was also originally used as herbal medicine to aid with minor illnesses.
Masala Chai as it’s Known Today
Today’s masala chai has caffeine, and plenty of it, in the form of tea. With British occupation of India came British priorities, and tea was on the top of their list.
Prior to occupation, Britain had an established trade relationship with China for their teas. However, China became increasingly suspicious of the British trying to take plants and information on local teas, and began limiting the tea trade in the early 1800s. Without access to tea, Britain shifted its sights to India in hopes of a new source.
The British headed to Assam, which it took control of from Burma via war in 1824. In Assam, they found cultivatable land where tea could be grown and began growing and selling tea with mixed success.
The initial batches of tea were bitter due to multiple factors such as lack of knowledge for growing tea in the area and untrained workers. The British didn’t want this poor quality tea which led to the India Tea Association to target the local Indian population for sales. They launched a multi-decade campaign encouraging people to drink tea and set up tea stalls across the country.
Street vendors fill the streets of India selling anything from food to drinks, so offering this specific tea via street vendors fit within local food culture. To make the tea more desirable, street vendors began including the Assam tea in their chai flavored beverages. This was one of the first steps towards creating the chai tea that is widely consumed today.
Masala Chai’s Popularity In India
Initially, the Assam black tea was the priciest part of masala chai. To offset the cost (and taste), street vendors also began including milk, sugar, and additional spices. This assisted with the taste and helped keep costs down as less black tea was needed for each drink.
It wasn’t until the 1960s however until masala chai gained widespread popularity. The sixties brought about new methods/technology for producing the Assam tea, allowing the cost to come down substantially. With more people able to afford masala chai, purchases increased drastically.
When is Masala Chai Served?
There are a few occasions in which masala chai is traditionally served, the first being to welcome guests into a home. It is not uncommon to be offered a fresh cup of brewed chai upon entering an acquaintance or friend’s home.
The drink is also commonly served in the afternoon with light snacks, similar to an English afternoon tea. Most of the snacks for this occasion are on the savory side, like samosas.
Otherwise, you’ll find masala chai on the streets of India being served by chai wallahs. These vendors specifically sell tea. It has become so common to drink this tea in India that many people drink approximately four cups per day.
How is Masala Chai Typically Served?
The answer is not so simple as it depends on the location you are drinking the tea. In many regions of India, you'll typically find it to be brewed with broken leaf black tea, milk, and sugar, as mentioned previously.
Some locations use green tea, and other spots like the US often lean towards loose leaf black tea. Other variations you'll find around the world use different sources of sweetness like honey and different types of milk.
It's a drink that has been adapted to the different tastebuds around the world as its gained popularity and spread of many countries and cultures.
Is There a Large Difference between American Chai and Indian Masala Chai?
In short, absolutely. From the way the tea is referred to spanning the method for preparation, you'll find quite a few differences. Most Americans will refer to masala chai as chai tea. Chai directly translates to tea, causing the name to be a bit repetitive (tea tea).
Other differences include the type of milk used. In India, whole milk is typically used, while in America, anything from skim milk to non-dairy milk can be seen incorporated into chai drinks.
In the US, the drink has also shifted to popular coffee shops. It now also includes espresso shots in some cases. So, if you want a more authentic version, you'll either have to travel to India or brew it at home (Tasting India provides an excellent option).
What is the Typical Process for Brewing Chai at Home?
Brewing masala chai at home is not as difficult as one might think. It requires just a few ingredients – milk, sugar, water, and the spices. Most people will boil the water first with the spices/tea for a few minutes until steeped. Then you can add in the sugar and finally the milk. Avoid boiling the milk as it can easily burn, offering an unpleasant taste. Below are a few tips and tricks you can try during your next brew session.
- Vary the water/milk ratio to your preference: Chai can be brewed a few different ways. Based on your preference you may brew with equal parts milk and water, more milk than water, or even just milk. Try and few ways and see what you like best! Just be careful if you are using a lot of milk not to burn it.
- Add sugar while the pan is hot: This is especially true if you are using white sugar or any kind of granulated sugar. Adding sugar in while the drink is still hot will ensure the sugar dissolves properly instead of staying in a clump at the bottom.
- Simmer chai for thicker tea: You can drink the tea as-is or simmer the tea for a few additional minutes, so some of the liquid evaporates. You're left with a more concentrated and thicker drink to enjoy.
- Strain before drinking: As with any other tea, chai is best served filtered to avoid any spice chunks being consumed. This is the final step before drinking the delicious beverage.
Where can I find masala chai?
You can find masala chai many places, but look for a place that offers an authentic experience! Tasting India by Chef Jasmine Sheth offers an excellent Cutting Masala Chai among other products.
Chef Sheth is a James Beard Foundation recipient who also offers online cooking adventures that rotate weekly and feature Indian recipes by region. She is inspired by her childhood spent in India and creates intending to share food items from areas in India that are not as well-known.
Check out our available products on the Tasting India collection page.
Curious About Other Applications of Masala?
Many masalas (spice blends) are available and are found throughout India. One is used in chai, however there are quite a large number of blends that are used for many other purposes. Here are a few blends to give you an idea of what else to explore.
Goda Masala is used in Maharastra and is one of two masala blends most often used in the local cuisine. Some common spices used are fenugreek seeds, mustard seeds, stone flowers, and coriander.
This specific blend uses oil to roast the spices before it is ground into a mix. Coconut and sesame are excluded from being roasted.
Did you know stone flower is commonly used to help with kidney stones and improved breathing capabilities?
This blend is worth mentioning as it is highly popular in India and very easy to find at stores. This particular blend originated in North India.
It is known for its spicy flavor in particular. The ingredients usually included are coriander, cumin, black peppercorns, fennel seeds, cloves, cinnamon, and green/black cardamom.
This masala is also from the Maharastra area – specifically Kolhapuri. Known as the masala blend with the most ingredients, you'll often find this blend with 32 different spices.
It is also known as a blend that packs a punch heat-wise. This should come as no surprise after taking a closer look at the ingredients. There are typically three types of hot chili peppers in this blend.
Other typical ingredients include poppy seeds, mase, star anise, and cubeb berries.