What is Chai Tea?
The influx of custom in Tea and Coffeehouses throughout the UK (and, in fact, around the world) has seen our outstanding ability to tolerate long queues put to the test. Perhaps you, too, have been in this position. Maybe you’ve found yourself aimlessly looking for some source of entertainment as you gradually waddle towards the counter.
Above the noise of the Coffee machines, your eyes have likely scoured the blackboard menus covered in new and fascinating brews you’ve never heard of or even thought to try. No doubt this includes Chai Tea. But what is Chai Tea? The simple answer: something special.
Most will be familiar with the term “Chai Latte”. In fact, industry analysts predict that Chai Lattes will eventually become as popular as regular Coffee lattes. However, we’re talking here about a beverage that is much, much better; a beverage that remains authentic to its original home in India.
Its association with the west may have, for the most, begun in the 1990s. But over 5,000 miles away, on the Indian subcontinent, variations of this brew have long been a part of the fabric of local life. There, Masala Chai Teas, as they’re officially known, have taken on a life-force of their own.
From region to region; village to village; and even household to household, Chai Tea recipes differ significantly from one another. In reality, a Chai Latte found in a UK Tea or Coffee shop bears only a minimal resemblance to any of these ‘real deals’.
Still asking ‘what is Chai Tea’? Let’s find out more.
What is Chai Tea?
Chai Tea benefits the mind, body and soul. Modern-day Indian Chai Tea consists of Black Tea leaves from the Camellia sinensis var. Assamica (Indian Tea) plant combined with a multitude of herbs and spices. Most of the time, these ingredients all originate from India.
Some common Chai Tea ingredients you might find include:
- Ginger Root
- Star Anise
Less common, but equally delicious Chai Tea spices and ingredients include:
- Liquorice Root
It is almost impossible to describe the overall taste of Chai Tea. This is because seldom are two recipes ever the same. (Very) broadly, however, one can expect a bold flurry of flavour dancing on the palate with every sip.
Chai Tea blends vary depending on the area of India they come from. Many of these recipes include milk and sugar, although not always. The northern Indian state of Rajasthan, for example, makes a Chai Tea using camel milk. In Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal, this changes to buffalo milk. A recipe in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, meanwhile, sees Chai Tea turn bright pink with the inclusion of salt. In some areas, it isn’t uncommon to add a dollop of butter!
Unfortunately, there remains a sizable class division in much of India. This often means that Chai Teas using milk and sugar usually (though not always) belong to the so-called working classes. Finer quality Chai Teas, on the other hand, usually (though, again, not always) belong to the so-called upper classes. Naturally, as of 2019, there are numerous exceptions to this rule.
Ultimately, it depends on one’s personal tastes. The extraordinary versatility of Chai Tea ensures that if there is one recipe one doesn’t particularly like, then there will likely be another one absolutely adores! From Cutting Chai to Irani Chai; Darjeeling Chai to Assam Chai; and then, of course, Masala Chai, the possibilities are almost endless.
Chai Tea Names Around the World
“Chai” in the Hindi language, as well as many other languages, means “Tea”. This means that, for decades, we’ve been ordering a cup of “Tea-Tea”!
Other languages that pronounce Tea as Chai include:
Languages with other variations and/or spellings of the word Chai, but still pronounce it in the same manner, include:
- Croatian (čaj)
- Czech (čaj)
- Georgian (ch’ai)
- Greek (tsái)
- Romanian (ceai)
- Serbian (čaj)
- Thai (chā)
- Ukrainian (chay)
All these variations originally stem from the Mandarin Chinese word, “chá” (茶). Meanwhile, the term “Masala Chai”, translated from Hindi, means “Spiced Tea” (मसालेदार चाय).
Chai Tea Ingredients
Let’s examine Chai Tea ingredient by ingredient. Almost every single component, at one stage or another, has had a role in the ancient holistic Indian practice of Ayurveda. To this day, nearly 80% of rural populations in India consider Ayurvedic Medicine a crucial part of their culture.
A variety of herbs and spices, including many used in Chai Tea, balance one’s “doshas”. Doshas are energies that make up every individual. They work together to perform physiological functions in the body, according to Ayurveda. The three doshas are the “Vata” dosha, the “Pitta” dosha and the “Kapha” dosha.
- Vata: This is the energy that controls bodily functions associated with motion. It includes blood circulation, blinking, breathing and the heartbeat.
- Pitta: This energy regulates the body’s metabolic systems. It includes digestion, absorption, nutrition and the body’s temperature.
- Kapha: Finally, the Kapha dosha is the energy that controls growth in the body. It also supplies water to all the body parts, moisturises the skin and maintains the immune system.
Chai Loose Tea is the perfect answer to dosha harmony. A combination of all the main ingredients can balance all three doshas. Let’s now look at these ingredients in further detail:
Loose Leaf Black Tea
Black Tea, unlike Green Tea, dates back only a few centuries. This, surprisingly, is young in Tea-terms. In comparison, Green Tea possibly dates back to 2737 BCE!
The difference between Green Tea and Black Tea lies in the processing of the leaf. Tea leaves used in the production of Black Tea are fully oxidised, then heat-processed and dried. Green Tea, on the other hand, undergoes only minimal oxidation.
Many Chai Tea recipes use Black Tea from the Indian state of Assam. This is partly because Indian Tea as a whole originates from Assam - hence the name Camellia sinensis var. Assamica.
Black Tea didn’t exist during the early days of Ayurveda. However, modern practice has since “adopted” Black Tea when it comes to balancing the doshas.
One should note that in some regions of India, instead of Black Tea, people use Green Tea or Gunpowder Green Tea.
It’s also important to note that all types of so-called “real” Tea (Black, Green, White and Oolong) contain caffeine. So, does Chai Tea have caffeine? Yes. Chai Tea caffeine absolutely exists.
This spice comes from the seeds of several plants in the Elettaria and Amomum genera. It belongs to the ginger family (Zingiberaceae) and has been a staple of Indian diets for thousands of years.
It is considered one of the world’s oldest spices and remains a very popular ingredient used in Tea (both so-called “regular” Tea and Herbal Tea) and curries. Cardamon’s distinct, bold and slightly sweet flavour makes it easily recognisable.
During the 19th Century, British colonists in India set up large-scale cardamom plantations. However, even before this period, it was highly revered in Ayurvedic medicine. Cardamom is a “tridoshic”, which means it can balance all three doshas.
Cinnamon is both a spice and bark from several trees belonging to the Cinnamomum genus. It belongs to the Lauraceae family.
Despite its widespread use, no one knows its true origins. All we know for sure is that Arab merchants once maintained a monopoly over the cinnamon trade, weaving colourful tales as to how it first came to be.
According to one particularly strange legend, gigantic birds once ‘guarded’ cinnamon high on mountain peaks, away from the people. When these people discovered its existence, they enticed the birds down from their perches using ox meat.
The birds took the ox meat back to their perches, only to weigh it down so much that their nests filled with cinnamon fell to the ground. The people then swiftly recovered the cinnamon and made a hasty retreat! Unsurprisingly, this is completely untrue. It no doubt made a good story for Arab traders to tell nonetheless!
Meanwhile, the complex flavour of cinnamon makes it the perfect addition to Chai Tea. It offers a balance between bitter and sweet which is well-suited to these beverages.
Cloves are flower buds from the Syzygium aromaticum tree, which belongs to the Myrtaceae family. They provide one of the most potent flavours in the world of spice.
Cloves are strong, pungent, sweet and yet also slightly astringent. They offer a warming sensation to the palate, especially in Chai Tea.
In Ayurveda, cloves balance the Vata and Pitta doshas. It enhances circulation, digestion and the metabolism, while also offering relief from stomach complaints such as gas, bloating and nausea. According to modern scientific research, these benefits might not only apply to holistic healing. This also applies to Chai Tea benefits.
Ginger Root needs little introduction. Unlike countless other spices of Asian origin, this particular herb of the Zingiberaceae family has been familiar to the west for at least 2,000 years.
Nowadays, we use Ginger in a wide variety of household and commercial foods, including, of course, Chai Tea. It has defined tangy notes which often ‘stand out’ in any recipe!
Traditional Ayurvedic texts refer to Ginger Root Tea as a remedy for many ailments prevalent in ancient Indian society. Like cardamom, it is a tridoshic.
But most commonly, it helps the Pitta dosha. In particular, many use it to aid digestion.
Again, most will already know much about peppercorns. We use them in day-to-day life as a little-added flavour on top or within culinary dishes. Peppercorns in Chai Tea, however, are equally important.
Black pepper is a flowering vine in the Piperaceae family. Though mostly used for savoury dishes, when added to Chai Tea, it enhances already-defined spicy notes.
In Ayurveda, peppercorns can ‘pacify’ both the Vata and Kapha doshas while also increasing the Pitta dosha. It helps the free flow of oxygen to the brain; enhances digestion and circulation; stimulates the appetite; and helps maintain respiratory system health.
Star Anise is the seed pod from the fruit of the Illicium verum tree. It is as beautiful as it is delicious, going beyond the boundaries of Indian tradition to play an essential role in Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese cultures, also.
Despite the misleading name, it is not, in fact, related to the aniseed plant. Nevertheless, many would say the flavours are comparable. This is because of a compound called anethole, found in both Star Anise and Aniseed, which provides the liquorice-like taste.
In Chai Tea, Star Anise offers sweetness with subtly herbaceous undertones. In Ayurveda, it works as a digestive aid by treating nausea, vomiting and gastric distress.
Turmeric goes by a very telling nickname: “The Spice of Life”. It belongs to the Zingiberaceae family like Ginger and Cardamom. Taste-wise, it offers sharp, earthy, bitter notes making it an especially unique, though equally scrumptious, addition to Masala Chai.
Some may also choose to enjoy Turmeric Root Tea as a standalone Tea. This includes our very own Turmeric Root Tea. To find out more information, read our blog, Why is Turmeric Good for You?
Ayurvedic Medicine recognises Turmeric as a tridoshic. It can assist with digestion, support the immune system, and even detoxify the liver.
From a scientific standpoint, Turmeric has significant potential. This is because of a component found in Turmeric called curcumin. This naturally-occurring chemical compound is an antioxidant capable of combating free radicals in the body.
Other Ingredients Used to Make Chai Tea
Fennel, Liquorice Root and Nutmeg add sweetness to Chai Tea. Lemongrass can offer enticing citrusy undertones. Ginseng, on the other hand, has notably earthy qualities. However, some Chai Tea recipes may go even further when it comes to unusual ingredients.
This includes vanilla, as found in our Madagascan Vanilla Chai Tea. Alternatively, one may add chocolate, such as our Night of the Iguana Belgian Chocolate Chai. Other additions include fruits such as apple, orange and lemon.
These twists on traditional blends are indeed no less tasty.
Ancient History of Chai Tea
Over the course of thousands of years, Chai Tea developed ingredient by ingredient. In its early days, it bore only minimal resemblance to the beverage we know and love today. First came the herbs and the spices. Then, hundreds of years later, the Tea. Finally, components such as milk and sugar found their way into Chai.
An early form of Masala Chai, a Herbal Tea, dates back over 5,000 years ago. It likely coincided with the founding of Ayurveda. During this period, these Teas were called “Kadhas” (or “Karha”). They were essentially Ayurvedic decoctions made with many herbs and spices for their beneficial qualities.
According to one legend, a reigning King of the time created the Kadha as a cleansing, vivifying Ayurvedic beverage in either India or Siam (present-day Thailand). Another legend suggests that a Buddhist monk created the Kadha on a trip to China. He observed the local ritual of chewing on wild leaves and then tried it for himself, eventually taking the leaves back to India.
During the reign of Emperor Ashoka (unknown - circa 230 BCE), some historians say that the Royal Court used Kadhas for symbolic purposes when signing peace treaties and for moments of political consolidation.
Centuries later, a Dutch traveller named Jan Huyghen van Linschoten (1563-1611) wrote: “Indians ate the leaves as a vegetable with garlic and oil and boiled the leaves to make a brew”. Could this be the first European written reference of early Chai Tea?
The inclusion of Tea leaves in Chai Tea, on the other hand, has a controversial history. It begins with the British colonisation of India, but likewise spreads throughout the then British Empire. During the 18th Century, Britain controlled much of the Tea trade in Europe and her colonies. However, two deciding factors would see the birth of the Tea industry in India.
First came the unrest in the thirteen American colonies - most famously the 1773 Boston Tea Party - which saw Britain lose control of a large portion of North America (excluding British Canada). Consequently, Britain lost its monopoly on the Tea trade in America.
Meanwhile, ever-growing tensions between Britain and China led to the Empire losing its primary source of Tea. The country was heading toward economic disaster, with its taste for Tea spelling bankruptcy. Britain needed an answer, and so it looked to India.
Discovery of Indian Tea
In 1774, Warren Hastings, an English statesman and Governor of the Presidency of Fort William (Bengal), sent a selection of Chinese Camellia sinensis var sinensis seeds to George Bogie, the then British emissary in Bhutan, for planting.
The experiment ultimately failed. This was because the Chinese plants struggled in the Indian heat. A second attempt took place in 1780, this time administered by British Army Officer Robert Kyd. Once again, the plants struggled to flourish.
In 1823, however, a Scottish merchant and adventurer named Robert Bruce made an incredible discovery that changed the British Empire’s Tea trade for years to come. He travelled to Rangpur (present-day Sibsagar) in Upper Assam to meet Bessa Gaum, the chief of the Singpho, one of the principal indigenous tribes of the Indian north-east.
Bruce intended to gain a better understanding of the native plants of the region. In turn, Bessa Guam presented him with leaves from a plant resembling that of Camellia sinensis var sinensis. Bruce knew that, if proven to be a relative of the Chinese Tea plant, then Britain could kickstart a Tea Industry in India with great ease.
Robert went on to clarify his findings with his brother, Charles Alexander Bruce, who studied the leaves at the Calcutta Botanical Gardens. He indeed confirmed that the plant given to Robert Bruce was a variety of the Tea plant, later dubbed Camellia sinensis var assamica.
Sadly, Robert Bruce never fully saw the fruits of his labour after dying in 1824. His legacy, however, lived on. By the late 1830s, The Assam Company had established itself in England with a headquarters in Nazira, India. To this day, the Nazira headquarters remains the oldest commercial Tea company in Assam.
Early 20th Century History
As late the 1900s, most Indians didn’t drink Tea. Instead, they preferred Kadhas, which remains an integral part of their culture.
During the First World War (1914-1918), Britain needed a boost to the economy to fund the war effort. In British India, this manifested in the form of an aggressive marketing campaign to encourage Indians to drink Tea, conducted by the British-owned Indian Tea Association.
The Indian Tea Association introduced “Tea-breaks” to factories, textile mills and mines in an attempt to sway the tastes of Indians. At Railway stations, vendors known as Chai Wallahs began selling Tea goods to travellers.
The competitive business of selling Tea soon saw vendors attempting to stand out from the crowd. They started adding herbs and spices used in Kadhas to cater to Indian Tastes. Its popularity spread rapidly thereafter.
Nevertheless, Tea remains expensive, even with these additions. Therefore, to lower the cost of making Chai Tea, Wallahs used milk and sugar. Many historians believe that the inspiration for this came from travellers and traders from Gujarat, Maharashtra and Bengal. At first, the Indian Tea Association disapproved of this ‘dilution’. But this, of course, changed when Indians began to drink Tea, thus boosting the economy.
Late 20th Century and Today
As independence sentiment increased during the mid-1900s, the now-world-famous and highly respected leader, Mahatma Gandhi, actually discouraged Tea-drinking due to its close association with the British Raj. When India finally (and rightfully) attained independence from Britain in 1947, sales again improved.
The making of Tea (and, in turn, Chai Tea) in India became easier during the 1960s. This was because of the invention of the CTC (Cut, Tear, Curl) machine by William McKercher. It’s introduction to India saw a dramatic reduction in the price of Tea.
At this stage, Chai Tea had earned its place in modern Indian culture. It turned an entire generation (and generations thereafter) of Indians into ritual Tea drinkers, with its momentum still gaining with every passing year. Even now during the 21st Century, Chai Wallahs continue to brew fresh Masala Chai all day, every day.
Chai stands have now spread throughout the country, populating street corners and roadsides in both rural and urban areas. Chai Wallahs are usually only equipped with a burner, a large clay pot, some cups and a ladle on a meagre wooden table or box. Nevertheless, no matter where you are in Indian, you’re likely not far from a humble Chai stall.
Chai Tea Benefits
Is Chai Tea good for you? Absolutely. And we’re not just talking about Ayurveda, either. Indeed, we’re talking about Chai Tea benefits from a scientific standpoint. It does, however, depend on what you add to your Chai Tea, ingredient-wise.
When it comes to Chai Tea leaves (i.e. Black Tea), in particular, one can expect Chai Tea antioxidants. Black Tea contains theaflavin and thearubigin, two polyphenolic antioxidants capable of combating free radicals in the body.
Free radicals are atoms or groups of atoms with an unpaired (and unsafe!) number of electrons that can wreak havoc on the organs and tissues when left unchecked. This, in turn, can lead to chronic conditions such as heart disease and even cancer.
The antioxidants present in Chai Tea leaves, meanwhile, can slow down the effects of natural, though harmful, human oxidation by neutralising free radicals. This eventually reduces the risks of developing the aforementioned chronic conditions.
What about other ingredients? Ginger, for example, can treat nausea and vomiting, similar to Ayurvedic teachings. Black Pepper can improve digestion. Turmeric, meanwhile, has almost un-matched anti-inflammatory properties capable of improving the immune system while also enhancing cognitive function.
Almost every ingredient added to Chai Tea has its own unique medicinal qualities. Combined, the health benefits of Chai Tea are a ‘must-have’ in this day and age as much as they were hundreds of years ago.
Immune System Health
Feeling a little ‘under the weather’? Chai Tea is, without a doubt, a great choice. Many of the ingredients found in traditional Masala Chai can not only reduce the symptoms of cold and flu, but even prevent them from manifesting in the first place.
The most famous Tea to include Ginger, for example, is Lemon and Ginger Herbal Tea, a beverage acclaimed for its minor-illness-fighting capabilities. This particular ingredient contains antibacterial properties that can help to support the immune system. It likewise soothes symptoms in those who’re already feeling unwell.
Cinnamon can also work as an immune system booster. It contains an abundance of polyphenolic antioxidants and proanthocyanidins, as well as vitamins and minerals including manganese, calcium, fibre and iron. Star Anise likewise contains beneficial components such as thymol, terpineol and anethole.
Then, of course, there is Turmeric, an ingredient traditionally mixed with milk to make the famously healthy beverage named “golden milk”. Turmeric in Chai Tea contains not only antibacterial properties, but also antimicrobial, antifungal and antiseptic qualities. Combined, one has a match made in heaven when protecting the body against incoming viruses.
Furthermore, the inclusion of Black Tea and its Health Benefits, according to a study conducted at Harvard University, USA. The study showed that people who drank 5 cups of Black Tea a day for two weeks had ten times more bacteria and virus-fighting interferon in their blood than those who instead consumed a placebo hot drink.
Improved Digestive System
According to the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, USA, the basic spices used in Chai Tea can improve digestion significantly. Many of the ingredients stimulate digestion, though namely cloves and black pepper.
The latter, in particular, can support the pancreas in secreting digestive enzymes. This, in turn, can help the body to digest heavy foods like fats and protein.
Cinnamon, meanwhile, can calm the stomach and combat nausea and diarrhoea, similar to Ginger. With the inclusion of Fennel, Chai Tea can even help disperse flatulence.
Furthermore, the Chai Tea leaves can help with an upset stomach, according to one study conducted in 2016. It showed that 2 to 12-year-old participants with acute non-bacterial diarrhoea who consumed Black Tea tablets could manage their symptoms.
When it comes to treating inflammation, choose Turmeric in your Chai Tea. There are over 5,600 biomedical study reports associated with Turmeric’s outstanding ability to aid rheumatoid arthritis and joint pain. Such is its efficiency that some researchers compare Turmeric to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS).
Cinnamon and cloves can also help. Both ingredients contain eugenol. This beneficial chemical compound has potent anti-inflammatory properties often used to relieve gum pain, in particular, as well as general inflammation.
Furthermore, a recent study published on NHS Choices suggests that inflammation may have a major impact on women with premenstrual syndrome (PMS), as well as having a significant effect on general menstrual discomfort. A double-blind comparative clinical trial showed that ginger could be more effective than common painkillers in relieving pain in women with menstrual cramps.
Chai Tea benefits our capacity to lose weight in many ways.
For starters, Black Tea itself can work as a metabolism-stimulator, while other ingredients included in Masala Chai Tea could likewise offer the same capabilities. A faster metabolism means that the body can burn fat quicker and more efficiently.
Cardamom powder, when taken as a supplement, may prevent abdominal fat deposition. Though the study used a supplement, not Tea, this would likely work in the same manner when applying Chai Tea benefits to one’s daily life.
Additionally, a 2009 animal-based study at Tufts University in Massachusetts, USA, found that curcumin - one of the main components in Turmeric - can suppress fat tissue growth in mice. Fennel, on the other hand, can allegedly reduce mucus and fat from the intestinal tract while also acting as an appetite suppressant.
Chai Tea Recipes
Homemade chai tea is easier to make than many believe. It can be enjoyed warm on a cold winter’s night, or as a chai iced tea on a scorching hot summer’s day. The Kent and Sussex Tea and Coffee Company’s basic masala chai recipe will hopefully inspire your own tasty brew:
Authentic Masala Chai Tea Recipe:
Ingredients: Assam Tea TGFOP, cardamom pods, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, pepper, milk, sugar, water.
- Step 1: Crush cloves, cardamom pods and cinnamon in a mortar or coffee grinder.
- Step 2: Place crushed spices in a small saucepan.
- Step 3: Add water, ginger, and pepper, then bring to a boil.
- Step 4: Remove the saucepan from the heat, cover, and let steep for approx 5 minutes.
- Step 5: Replace saucepan on the heat with the addition of milk and sugar and bring to a boil.
- Step 6: Once again remove from heat and add our House Assam Tea TGFOP.
- Step 7: Cover and steep for approx 3 minutes.
- Step 8: Stir thoroughly.
- Step 9: Strain into a warmed teapot or directly into mugs or cups.
- Step 10: Serve, relax, enjoy!
Where to Buy Chai Tea
If you do not want to, or do not have the time to experiment with your own recipe, then The Kent and Sussex Tea and Coffee Company have a wide selection of Chai Tea blends for you to choose from and enjoy. Each one is as delicious as the last.
Perhaps most convenient of all is our Chai Tea Bags. These little pockets of goodness contain Black Tea, cardamom, nutmeg, ginger, cloves and cinnamon. Such is its extraordinary flavour that it won the Great Taste Award in 2006. The recipe came from a Grandmother of a very old acquaintance of Mr Richard Smith.
Our Spicy Turmeric Chai Tea may prove an excellent choice for those who’re particularly health conscious. As the name suggests, this brew provides an additional kick of flavour thanks to ingredients such as chilli, cardamom seeds and, of course, Turmeric.
Travelling across the Indian border, we have our Nepal Masala Chai Tea. This tasty Tea comes from the Ilam district of Nepal. It uses Black Loose Leaf Nepal Tea from the Shree Antu Gorkha Tea estate. Its other ingredients include cinnamon, ginger and cardamom, as well as lemongrass!
If you’re looking to cut down your caffeine intake but still wish to enjoy the flavours and aromas of Chai Tea, we recommend our Red Chai Rooibos Tea, which infuses delectable Indian spices with an unmistakably South African beverage. We likewise have our Tulsi Ginger Chai which, like any other Chai Tea, can help in balancing the three Ayurvedic doshas.
Finally, we have our ever-popular Cochin Masala Chai. This bold brew is a notably flavoursome beverage that combines wonderful South Indian spices with a blend of Broken Pekoe Teas from Assam and Kerala.
From the Royal Courts of ages-past to the streets and suburbs of modern India, Chai Teas (in one form or another) have endeared an entire nation for millennia.
Now, that endearment has spread to the west. Through the nurturing hands of The Kent and Sussex Tea and Coffee Company, one can step into the midst of this Tea’s fascinating history from the comfort of home.
No longer does one need to travel 5,000 miles to experience these wonderful brews (although, if you get a chance to, we very much recommend it!). Instead, just sit back, relax and enjoy a lovely, nourishing, soulful cup of Chai Tea brought to you by us.
You’ll certainly never look at that Coffee shop blackboard the same way ever again.