My earliest memories of chai take me back to childhood—specifically, those lazy Sunday afternoons when a cricket match was on and all the uncles from the neighborhood would meet at our house and crowd around the television while the aunties were busy in the kitchen sending out pots and pots of hot chai with glucose biscuits. Chai isn’t just a beverage; it’s also a way of cherishing the simple things in life, and a way to bring families together and celebrate the present.
Tea is one of the oldest and most common beverages consumed worldwide, and it’s popular in many countries and cultures. The term “chai” is derived from the Chinese word for tea, “cha.” There are dozens of similar articulations for tea used in many languages around the globe. Indian chai is sweetened black tea mixed with milk and various spices, which is known as masala chai.
There are many versions of how masala chai came to be, including the story of a king who, thousands of years ago, boiled some herbs in water and inadvertently created this Indian tea. As the story goes, that recipe passed down from generation to generation and slowly evolved until every region, town, neighborhood and family had its own version of chai. Another popular creation story tells it like this: In the 1800s when the British ruled over India, impressed by its fertile soil, they planted tea gardens and produced black tea. Following British tradition, Indian people began drinking the tea first with milk, then adding sugar or another sweetener. As a final touch, spices were added and masala chai was born.
Today masala chai is an essential part of life in India, where having a cup or two (or maybe three) of chai in the morning is akin to brushing your teeth every day. Brewing a pot of hot masala chai is something most Indian people can do with their eyes closed. Chai can be found in every corner of India from big restaurants to street vendors known as chai wallahs (aka chaiwallas) who sell hot chai spiced mostly with cardamom and ginger, served in little clay glasses.
If you want a quick fix, steep a pre-packaged chai teabag in hot water or try one of those instant chai mixes with loads of sugar and spices. But for the real thing, you simply must have black tea that is slowly cooked in water with right amount of milk and sugar along with any number of spices like cardamom, ginger, peppercorn and cinnamon. Traditional Indian chai isn’t as creamy as the chai that’s so popular in North America. Indians add whole milk or sometimes reduced-fat milk rather than heavy cream or half-and-half. The spice preference in a masala chai recipe varies from family to family and from person to person, but here are some of the most common types of chai in India.
Green cardamom chai is one of the most common varieties of masala chai made in India. In this version, the tea is cooked in water, milk, sugar and coarsely crushed cardamom pods.
This is another common variety of masala chai popular in India and it’s found in almost every tea stall around the country. The spice used here is fresh ginger, crushed with a mortar and pestle or grated so that the juices come out, which are then mixed with the tea.
As you can probably tell by the name, this chai has a strong and spicy flavor, which is due to a lot of spices bring crushed and mixed together before being added to the tea. The main spices used in spicy masala chai are cloves, green cardamom, cinnamon, ginger and black pepper. After they’re blended together, the spices are then cooked with tea in hot water before the milk and sugar is added. The brewing process results in the tea’s strong, spicy flavor.
Ginger and cardamom are a popular mix for chai. The spicy ginger and aromatic cardamom work really well with sweet and slightly bitter tea.
To be clear, tulsi herbal tea isn’t a type of masala chai. But a discussion on Indian chai would be remiss without a mention of this special tea. Tulsi holds a very sacred place in Indian culture. Made from a variety of basil called “holy basil,” the dark leaves are prepared as an herbal tea, mostly used for medicinal purposes in India, where tulsi leaves are cooked with other spices in water. The liquid is reduced so that it extracts all the “good things” from the herbs and it’s used to cure cough, cold, body aches, fever and headaches.
Editor’s Note: Chai lovers: what’s your favorite way to enjoy chai? In a “latte,” Starbucks style, or do you opt for the more traditional route Prerna described? Let’s share and compare!
Prerna is a food photographer and the blogger behind Indian Simmer. She spent most of her childhood in a few small towns in central India, a time she fondly remembers for rotis straight off the clay oven and her mom’s cooking with produce plucked right from the farms. She earned her MBA in India and worked in the advertising industry for a few years. Then she met a guy, married him, and moved to the US. When Prerna’s not running after her daughter, you’ll find her cooking in the tiny kitchen of her small apartment in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“Three things made me this awesome cook that I am today,” she says, sarcastically, “circumstances, no help and hunger! Whatever I do in the kitchen today is because of the two moms in my life: my mom and my husband’s mom.” Prerna loves traveling and exploring new cuisines, then testing them in her kitchen before sharing them with the world. These days she’s having fun combining two of her biggest passions—food and photography—on Indian Simmer. Check out Indian Simmer on Facebook!