Masala chai (Hindi (मसाला चाय [masālā chī], “spiced tea”) is a beverage from the Indian subcontinent made by brewing tea with a mixture of aromatic Indian spices and herbs. By itself, chai is merely the generic word for tea in much of the world, but for many English speakers outside those regions, “chai” is always construed as “masala chai”.
Chai (Hindi: चाय, Urdu: چاۓ) is simply the word for “tea” in much of South Asia, as in many other parts of the world.
Although coffee remains more popular in some southern parts of India, chai is ubiquitous throughout South Asia, where street vendors called “chai wallahs” (sometimes spelled “chaiwalas”) are a common sight. Chai is also a popular item in the genre of South Asian restaurants known as Irani cafés.
The traditional chai-brewing process actively boils the tea leaves over sustained heat. Chai prepared in this manner has a caffeine level comparable to coffee, as the prolonged boiling produces a more robust beverage than quiescently steeping the tea leaves in hot (but not boiling) water.
For many English speakers outside those regions, the term “chai” is synonymous with masala chai, as further described below. The tautological term chai tea is sometimes used to indicate spiced milky tea as distinct from other types of tea. Numerous coffee houses use the term chai latte for their version to indicate that the steamed milk of a normal cafe latte is being flavored with a spiced tea concentrate instead of with espresso. Some coffeehouses and brand names refer to their product as chai tea latte.
Traditional masala chai
Tea plants have grown wild in the Assam region since antiquity, but historically, South Asians viewed tea as an herbal medicine rather than a recreational beverage. Some of the chai masala spice mixtures in current use are still derived from Ayurvedic medical texts.
In the 1830s, the British East India Company became concerned about the Chinese monopoly on tea, which constituted most of its trade and supported the enormous consumption of tea in Great Britain, approximately one pound (by weight) per person per year. British colonists had recently noticed the existence of the Assamese tea plants, and now began to cultivate tea plantations locally. Over 90% of the tea consumed in Great Britain was still of Chinese origin in 1870, but by 1900, this percentage had dropped to 10%, largely replaced by tea grown in India (50%) and Ceylon (33%).
However, consumption of tea within India still remained low until an aggressive promotional campaign by the (British-owned) Indian Tea Association in the early 20th century, which encouraged factories, mines, and textile mills to provide tea breaks for their workers. It also supported many independent chai wallahs throughout the growing railway system.
The official promotion of tea was as served in the English mode, with small added amounts of milk and sugar, and the Indian Tea Association initially disapproved of independent vendors’ tendency to reduce their usage (and thus purchases) of tea leaves by adding spices and greatly increasing the proportions of milk and sugar. However, masala chai in its present form has now firmly established itself as a popular beverage, not just outlasting the British Raj but spreading beyond South Asia to the rest of the world.
The simplest traditional method of preparing masala chai is to actively simmer or boil a mixture of milk and water with loose leaf tea, sweeteners, and whole spices. Indian markets all over the world sell various brands of “chai masala,” (Hindi चाय मसाला [chāy masālā], “tea spice” ) for this purpose, though many households blend their own. The solid tea and spice residues are strained off from masala chai before serving.
The method can be varied according to taste or local custom: for example, some households may combine all of the ingredients together at the start, bring the mixture to a boil, then immediately strain and serve; others may leave the mixture simmering for a longer amount of time, or begin by bringing the tea leaves to a boil and only add the spices toward the end (or vice-versa).
There is no fixed recipe or preparation method for masala chai and many families have their own special versions of the tea. The tea leaves (or tea dust) steep in the hot water long enough to extract intense flavor, ideally without releasing the bitter tannins. Because of the large range of possible variations, masala chai can be considered a class of tea rather than a specific kind. However, all masala chai has the following four basic components:
The base tea is usually a strong black tea such as Assam, so that the spices and sweeteners do not overpower it. However, a wide variety of teas are used to make chai. Most chai in India is brewed with strong black tea, but Kashmiri chai is brewed with gunpowder tea.
Plain white sugar is sufficient, although individual tastes may favour the caramelised notes from Demarara, other brown sugars, palm or coconut sugars, or the more complex slight acidity of honey. A surprisingly large quantity of sugar may be required to bring out the flavour of the spices; one recipe uses three tablespoons of sugar in 3.5 cups of chai. Condensed milk can also be added as a dual-purpose sweetener and dairy addition.
Usually, whole milk is used for its richness. Generally, masala chai is made by mixing 1/4 to 1/2 parts milk with water and heating the liquid to near-boiling or even full boiling. As previously mentioned, some people like to use condensed milk in their masala chai to double as the sweetener.
Vegan Chai can be made with soya milk and is widely available at festivals
The traditional masala chai is a bracing, strongly spiced beverage brewed with so-called “warm” spices. Most masala chai incorporates one or more of the following: cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, star anise, peppercorn, and cloves.
Traditionally, cardamom is a dominant note. Indian masala mixtures and cuisine also commonly use other spices such as cloves, ginger, or black pepper; the latter two add a pleasantly piquant flavour. In India, for example, fresh ginger is usually used.