You know how online products often have a rating system where consumers can choose anywhere from one to five stars that indicate they either “would not recommend” to “would highly recommend” a product? It’s safe to say that the entire Indian continent would give chai a five-star, “would highly recommend” review, and over the past couple of decades, hundreds of thousands more Westerners would do the same. The chai fan base is probably bigger than any movie star’s or pro sports star’s or reality show star’s… or all of them combined.
So what’s the big deal, you ask? If you’re asking, it’s because you haven’t tried chai – and we think it’schai time you did! While there’s undoubtedly some out there who just don’t find chai to their liking, several million others just shake their heads and say, “Oh well, more chai for me!” Let’s take a look at this one-of-a-kind tea and see if we can make a be-leaf-er out of you!
Once Upon a Chaime…
The origins of chai are somewhat murky, dating back either 5000 or 9000 years ago to a king in either India or Thailand. The king mixed together what are now known as chai spices as a healing Ayurvedic medicine. At the time, black tea was not part of the mixture.
Jump ahead to the mid-19th century when the British East India Company had begun smuggling tea plants out of China and creating tea plantations in their colony, India. While black tea began to be more available in India, it was still quite expensive for the average citizen. To lessen the amount of tea they needed for a cuppa, they began adding chai spices and milk to it, making it a more affordable beverage. Also, the India Tea Company began promoting tea breaks for workers as a vehicle for selling more tea. Adding to tea’s rise in popularity was the fact that in the 1930s there was an oversupply of Indian tea that the British tea companies began selling to the Indians.
The real game-changer for making chai wildly popular was the introduction of CTC teas, a much more efficient method of processing the black tea that results in a far more affordable tea. It was a match made in heaven for chai tea lovers, and the rest is history.
What Is Chai?
The name “chai” is the Hindi word for “tea.” It was derived from “cha,” the Chinese word for “tea.” “Masala chai” means “spiced tea,” which is what “chai” has become synonymous with – a tea brewed with milk, sugar and warming spices. The recipes vary by region and personal preference. Traditionally, chai is a black tea mixed with strong spices like cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, ginger and black peppercorns. When people say “chai,” they are generally referring to “masala chai.” To say “chai tea” literally translates to “tea tea,” so try not to say that.
Chai is basically the national drink of India, with most citizens consuming three to four cups daily from morning to night. Chaiwalas (or chaiwallahs, either spelling meaning “tea person”), are everywhere in India. They prepare, sell and serve chai from corner stands and small shops. In India, chaiwalas and others generally prepare chai from scratch with fresh ingredients.
Here in the U.S., we generally prepare chai with a pre-made blend of black tea and spices. Harney offers several chai teas:
Let’s Have Some Chai
Brewing chai is no different than brewing other teas, unless you choose to make it with all fresh ingredients instead of using a chai-blended tea. You can use milk if you wish (your favorite kind will work just fine) and add the sweetener of your choice (or don’t!). Or you can use a combination of milk and water to steep your chai leaves. If you prefer an iced chai, steep your tea in hot water but don’t heat the milk and pour all over ice.
Chai lattes, both hot and cold, have gained in popularity throughout the U.S. If you order a “dirty chai” when you’re out, it means they’ve added a shot of espresso to your tea. Hence, the very appropriate name!
Here are a couple recipes incorporating chai for some real decadent pleasures:
Pumpkin Chai Latte
Optional coconut whipped cream
If you’re already a chai fan, we hope you discovered a new fact or recipe to enrich your life. If you weren’t a chai fan before, we hope we’ve piqued your interest and will try this unique and wildly popular beverage. Sitting down with a cup of chai could become thechailight of your day!
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We explore the fascinating origins of well-known tea sayings and idioms, relate their meanings and how they came to be part of our vocabulary.