The Ultimate Guide to Chai Tea

Erika Marty

Chai is a delicious tea that has become mainstream over the last decade. The Indian tea boasts a robust, spicy flavor that is mellowed out by the addition of warm milk. It's the perfect blend of spicy and smooth and sure to satisfy tea lovers.

Learn more about chai, including what the word actually means and discover the rich history behind the beverage. With this brief guide, you'll discover the unique flavor of chai tea and learn how to brew it at home.

What Does Chai Mean?

The word chai is derived from the Mandarin Chinese term "cha", which simply means tea. The term can also be found in the Hindu language. In many tea shops in Asia, you can simply order chai. In America, the more popular term is chai tea, which was initially used to help translate the meaning more effectively to new tea drinkers. Today, you can order a chai tea, chai, masala chai or chai latte—the terms are essentially interchangeable.

What Is Chai?

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Chai is an herbal tea. The beverage we know as chai tea in America can also be called masala chai. This type of tea is a direct reference to a famous Indian tea made by blending black tea leaves and several spices.

The traditional masala chai tea recipe contains at least five staple spices including cardamom pods, fresh ginger, black peppercorns, cinnamon sticks, and cloves. Regional variations may also call for allspice or star anise. The tea is often consumed with a dash of milk.

Masala tea is made using black tea leaves from Indian plantations. The most common varieties include Indian Assam and Darjeeling black teas or Sri Lankan Ceylon tea. In rare cases, green tea is also be used to make a milder variation of masala chai.

History of Chai Tea

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Chai spice tea is a staple of life in India. You can find people enjoying the tea from the slums to the high rises across the nation. The tea is a critical part of social gatherings and can be found at engagements from a simple drink with friends to wedding celebrations and funerals.

Legends state that chai got its origins in present-day India when a king wanted a healing spiced tea. More than 5,000 years ago, the hot tea was created using hand-selected spices. The spices were chosen because of their potential health benefits. Black pepper and ginger were thought to improve digestion while cinnamon improved respiratory function. Cardamon and ground cloves were thought to boost mood and energy while preventing infections.

The spice mixture was originally just infused in hot water. No tea leaves were used in the original creation of chai tea. This addition was developed through western influence thousands of years later.

The current form of the tea—using loose black tea—rose to prominence during the time of British colonial rule. At the time, China maintained a monopoly on the production of tea. Great Britain wanted to end this monopoly by producing tea in the colonies. The landscape of India was the perfect place to cultivate and harvest tea plantations. As a result, Britain brought experts to India to teach the locals how to grow the tea.

The East India Company began to produce and ship the tea from India to England. From there, the tea made its way to American shores. During the production process, tea growers were encouraged to form tea societies and groups to encourage workplace unity. The result was that chai became ingrained into daily life and a way for employees and every day people to enjoy the tea while spending time with colleagues and friends.

Basic Chai Tea Recipe

Chai tea is easy to brew at home. You can make chai the traditional way by grinding the spices by hand to ensure high-quality flavor and freshness. You can also simplify the process by using ground spices instead. You can also boost flavor and energy by making a dirty chai latte.

Ingredients:

  • 16 ounces or two cups of water
  • 16 ounces of milk (traditionally buffalo milk, but can also use whole milk or non-dairy milk)
  • 4 teaspoons of loose leaf black tea (or 4 black tea bags)
  • 1 1-inch piece of freshly cut ginger
  • 4 black peppercorns
  • 8 cloves
  • 8 green cardamom pods
  • Sweetener if desired (white sugar, brown sugar, agave)

Instructions:

1. Use a spice grinder to grind the ingredients into a fine powder.

2. Add the spices, milk, and water to a large saucepan on the stove. Bring the spice mixture to a rapid boil.

3. Once the water temp reaches 212 degrees Fahrenheit, add in the loose tea.

4. Remove the pan from heat and place a lid on top. Let the mixture steep for 10 minutes.

5. Strain the tea leaves and any larger spice chunks using a fine mesh strainer.

6. Pour a couple cups of chai and sweeten as desired.

Recipe Notes:

The flavors of chai spices are better developed using whole milk. Low-fat and fat-free milks don't develop the flavors as well and can create a mild or less tasty brew. For the best flavor, stick to whole dairy milk or substitute with a non-dairy nut alternative.

You can adjust the preparation method of this chai recipe to make a chai tea latte—like the ones you find in Starbucks and other coffeeshops. Simply use a frother to steam the milk. Pour the thick foam on top of the tea base and stir gently. Serve with a sprinkle of cinnamon or brown sugar on top.

Chill Out With Chai

Chai tea offers a world of flavor in just one cup. Brew the traditional way with our basic recipe or get creative and add new flavors and spices. Either way, you're sure to enjoy the contrast of spicy goodness, bold black tea flavors, and the mellow and smooth characteristics of milk.


Erika Marty

As a digital nomad, I get to work from anywhere in the world and discover new teas every week. When I'm not working, you can find me mountain biking, hiking, and petting every stray dog I meet.

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