You’ve seen it at your local café and supermarket, and you’ve seen it on your Instagram feed, but what exactly is chai and where does it come from?
Sit back and relax, as we discuss all you need to know about the interesting world of chai (and why we really need to stop referring to it as “chai tea”).
What is chai?
Traditionally, (Masala) chai is made by boiling black tea in milk, water, and a mixture of herbs and spices. Oh-so aromatic, chai or Masala Chai tastes sweet, creamy, and spicy.
Think of a cup of chai as the perfect part of your daily self-care ritual. Not only is it a great companion, when there’s nothing better than cozying up with a good book. It’s great to give you your daily superfood and caffeine fix without robbing your adrenals like coffee.
Even if you’ve never tasted chai, chances are high that you’ve heard of it. Tea is, after all, the second most-consumed drink on earth, right behind water. At least, that’s what The National Geographic says.
Is it called chai or chai tea?
And on the note of chai tea: chai is a Hindi word that means tea this has been derived directly from the Mandarin word cha In many parts of India tea is still referred to as cha. By calling it “chai tea,” we are just saying “tea tea.” To each their own, but we do find that humorous.
Don’t worry if you’ve been calling it chai tea. Does it really matter, in the world of chai and relaxation?
Components of chai
As previously mentioned, there is an array of spicy yet delicious flavors that make chai such a wonderfully perfect daily companion.
Chai is chock full of flavour, typically with components like warm milk, black tea, water, and spices. Now the spices are where it gets good. Imagine the aroma of cinnamon, ginger, and peppercorn — we never want our cup to empty!
These above-mentioned (oh-so-yummy) ingredients were traditionally used to make the perfect cup of chai. They still can be, if you have the time.
If you're on the go, there’s always the very modern tea bags, powders, and concentrates to choose from. Our personal favorite is loose-leaf sticky chai, for a more authentic flavor that you can't get enough of.
The history of chai
According to Epicurious, Masala chai or chai (which means “tea” in many languages) originated from India, however, the tea and origin of the name chai comes from cha which is the Mandarin Chinese word for tea.
Some believe that the beloved aromatic drink dates back as far as 9 000 years ago with roots in Traditional medicine, combining various techniques including Vedic and Muslim medicine Back then, chai looked a little different than today. No tea leaves were involved.
Yep, the te’/tea/cha industry only arrived in India around 1835, when the East India Company began ‘domesticating’ tea farms in Assam, India using Chinese cultivation techniques, Chinese labour and Chinese tea varieties. Tea was already a well established global commodity and they wanted to break the Chinese monopoly on the tea trade/IP and set up export to Europe, mostly.
While there were wild Assam tea plants, Camellia Assamica, it wasn’t yet part of the local culture to drink cha. The Europeans wanted to use Chinese varieties as they were popular in the west. Tea/cha/chai drinking was not yet part of South Asian culture. It took several years of trial and error to create a product worthy of sale to the local and international markets.
As greater local (South Asian)knowledge of cultivation and fermentation techniques became more widespread, wild indigenous varieties became more popular. The proliferation of tea in South Asia is closely related to economic and political instability in China and corporate greed but that’s the subject of another blog post.
The first serveral attempts to build a cha/chai market in India were rather unsuccessful. The first teas being produced in India were not great quality and it was not yet part of Indian daily life. High-grade Black tea was expensive and it was typically exported. Tea merchants or Chai wallah’s were set up by the Indian tea association to help build the local Indian market backed by aggressive advertising campaigns. Chai Wallah’s would typically use highly processed CTC’s or other low-grade to sell streetside.
This grade of tea was, many times, bitter and these industrious merchants had a keen understanding of their customer’s tastes so they used their spirit of ingenuity and many began to add spices, milk, and sugar to make these warm drinks delicious and approachable to their customers.
Later, in the 1960s, higher grade black tea became more affordable for Indian locals. It quickly became a staple in parts of India, and still is today.
We understand why Chai is delicious and is popular all over Asia!
If you’re ever spending time in South Asia and looking for the perfect Chai, head to a street vendor selling chai. Chances are, it might be the best cuppa you’ve ever tasted! Not to mention the fun vibe of being part of the hustle and bustle.
With a chai in hand, of course.
The benefits of chai
Tea lovers may enjoy adding this spicy drink to their daily routine.
Not only is the warm taste soothing, but chai also has many health benefits. So, you can drink it without feeling guilty!
However, most of these chai tea benefits are linked to the ingredients of chai tea, and not the tea itself (hey, that's good enough for us!).
Depending on the recipe, chai may assist with good heart health, reduce blood sugar levels and improve digestion. It can also assist with weight loss, but of course, that depends on how sweet you prefer your cup of chai (wink, wink).
The modern chai latte and variations
We’ll chat about the origins of chai in a sec, but it’s safe to say that chai has a few more variations since its development out of its Indian roots and British colonization.
Today, chai lovers can enjoy everything from a chai latte and a hot chai cocktail to a dirty chai.
How does a chai latte taste, how do you make a hot chai cocktail and what on earth is dirty chai? Don’t worry, we wanted to know too, and the results are fascinating
What is a chai latte?
You’re standing in line on your coffee (or in this case tea) run. You read the menu, but confusion sets in: what is the difference between chai tea and chai latte?
While chai (usually) consists of hot milk, leaf-style tea, and spices, a chai latte has become commercially synonymous with powder or syrup that tastes like chai vaguely. Although delicious, a chai latte is way sweeter than the original product. Let’s just say you might not want turn to a chai latte in powder or concentrare if you’re looking to lean down.
While both drinks are delicious, in the fight of chai using “loose leaf” tea vs chai latte, we’ll always stick to the original fighter. We believe in using whole foods and fresh spices to serve you.
What is sticky chai?
It’s time to get your hands dirty. But what is sticky chai?
Sticky chai has all the chai ingredients we know and love, with the added bonus of something - you guessed it - sticky, for a dash of sweetness. It’s more convenient to work with and locks in flavour of ingredients.
Our favorite sticky substance is the sweet-tasting plant-based agave, but honey works too, or whichever sticky elixir you prefer. This style of sticky masala chai is very much an Australian innovation.
To make this sweet aromatic drink, use the same recipe as you would for making chai. Then, you blend and grind the ingredients together
Now, here comes the fun part: stir the ingredients in with agave ( or honey). It’s best if you do this bit using your hands. Prepared to get sticky (but with yummy consequences!).
What is dirty chai?
Now that we’re done with the sticky, what is dirty chai?
Do you love chai but miss your coffee fix? Oh, wait until you hear about the dirty chai! Dirty chai is a chai made with a shot of espresso.
Think of it as the perfect chai latte coffee combo.
Rumor has it that this delicious drink was invented by accident. Apparently, a barista in London was serving a client who ordered a chai. The barista accidentally added a shot of espresso, but the client tried it anyway. Long story short, the dirty chai was (and still is) a hit.
What is a hot chai cocktail?
Hmmm, now things are getting exciting (or should we say chai-citing?). Add a dash of liqueur to your favorite chai recipe to create a hot chai cocktail.
If chai cocktails sound like something you would like to try, you may find this recipe for chai spiced negroni useful.
Bonus drink: the cold brew chai
We love warm tea as much as the next person, but we sure won’t say no to cold brew chai. Hello, relaxing on a summer's day!
This delicious drink is made by placing 250g of chai in a large plastic or glass container. Add two liters of water, stir well with a large spoon, and cover for 18 hours in the fridge. After the wait is over, strain well and serve with ice.
Add a dash of cinnamon or freshly grated nutmeg for a little oomph and enjoy when you need a delicious pick-me-up!
While we’re on the topic of different chai teas, you’ve also probably heard the term “Masala chai”.
What is Masala chai and how is it different from chai?
Believe it or not, but Masala chai and chai are typically the same thing. Chai in our Occidental daily context has evolved to mean spiced tea. Yup. “Masala” means a combination of spices in Hindi. And, as you know by now, the word “chai” means tea.
So, Masala Chai translates to “spiced tea”, which is exactly what chai tea is.
Where to buy quality chai
So much chai, so little time! If you’re going to make chai at home, buy quality chai that you can trust.
Monk Chai is a good place to start. Our chai is organic, plant-based, and hand-made in Australia. You can look forward to bursts of flavors like deep caramel, malty layered vanilla notes. It's the perfect tasting chai: something spicy and invigorating, rich in organic specialty grade aromatics that's been blended with the highest quality teas.
As for the spices, you can’t go wrong with pure Ceylon cinnamon. This is blended with the warmth of crushed ginger and cardamom tempered by star anise, nutmeg, and the hum of black peppercorns, cayenne, clove, and pimento.
How did we manage to incorporate all these lovely flavors, you might ask? We search the world for the best specialty grade organic spice and tea suppliers.
We strive to give our customers that perfect tasting cup by bringing together the very best of what the seasons have to offer.
It’s a cuppa chai you won’t (want to) forget.