The belief that India’s best products are meant for the West is usually accurate, whether it’s the finest tea or saffron. However, there are some exceptions to this rule — masala chai, chai latte, or chai tea is one of them. This beverage changed it all and we can credit its discovery to India, unlike the CTCs (cut, tear, curl) concept that made tea affordable and popularized it among Indian generations.
Now, masala chai is drunk by billions of people worldwide and is an integral part of Indian culture, with each region having a unique blend of this tea. From the pink midday tea in Kashmir to the 6-spice chai in Gujarat, no two masala chai preparations are the same.
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Millennial-style masala chai versions have also arisen in the Western world, with companies such as Starbucks providing chai lattes worldwide. However, these versions are a far cry from the original recipe, often using fast spice blends and a lot of sugar and not employing conventional brewing procedures.
A brief history
The original conception of masala chai dates back to the British era in India, with tea fields established in Assam around 1835. These black teas found their way into masala chai recipes, making the drink popular among the British. But unfortunately, the cost of tea made it unaffordable for most Indians.
Possibly the oldest tea in the world
The actual masala chai, as we know it now, was created centuries ago in ancient royal courts. Folklore states that it was formed 9,000 years ago, but some suggest it was made 5,000 years ago. It is said that the court was in what is now India, while others claim that it originated in Thailand.
Regardless, it is believed that it was invented by traders as a purifying, energizing Ayurvedic drink. The spicy-sweet concoction was prepared in various ways and served hot or cold, without tea leaves or caffeine.
Today, masala chai is brewed from scratch in India, using fresh ginger and spices. In the U.S., it is available as a syrup concentrate (popular in coffeehouses) and as a tea “mix” with dried herbs.
The number of variations has grown in step with its global popularity. Jaggery, a type of unprocessed cane sugar, is commonly used to sweeten Indian masala tea. However, other countries have improved it by using more widely available sweeteners such as cane sugar and honey.
In India and much of the world, masala chai is made using black tea. In Kashmir, gunpowder green tea is used instead. Many American tearooms use loose-leaf black tea, and caffeine-free variants use rooibos. Whole milk is typically used, but people worldwide choose skim milk, soymilk, or other non-dairy alternatives.
American version of chai
Masala chai and American chai differ in ingredients and preparation methods. Over time, the term “masala chai” evolved into “chai” or even “chai tea.” However, this is a little deceiving since “masala chai” means “spiced tea,” while “chai” means “tea,” and “chai tea” translates to “tea.”
Despite these differences, the expansion of this spiced tea to America has been cheerful and well-liked. As customer demand for tea continues to grow, many teahouses provide high-quality, loose-leaf masala chai. In addition, chai tea lattes and dirty chai, a masala-flavored drink, have recently gained popularity in many coffee shops in the West.