Masala Chai: India’s Wonder Drink

If there was ever a drink that seems guaranteed to improve the mood, its chai.  Specifically masala chai, with masala being a general Hindu term for spice mix, and chai the term for tea.  If you ask for chai tea, you’re just being redundant.  (This sort of expression is called pleonasm, where one of the words is excessive, e.g. burning fire (are there other kinds?), black darkness)  On the flip side, many Westerners would be surprised if they asked for a chai and were given a plain cup of tea, a case of under-description or anti-pleonasm if ever there was one.

The Back Story

Long before tea became popular in Southern India, coffee was firmly entrenched in the culture thanks to the Arab traders cultivating plots of coffee since the 17th century.  Coffee had a head start compared to tea.  Contrary to popular belief, Indians did not introduce tea drinking to the British, but rather it was the other way around.  India’s acceptance of tea was the result of a major marketing campaign by the Indian Tea Association (a British company) [Lizzie Collingham, Curry, A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, Oxford University Press, 2006, p. 188]   Truth be told, tea drinking started in China, spread to Japan and Tibet.  The Thais and Burmese took to eating the tea leaves (tea leaf salad, anyone?), but the Indians could not be bothered.  No, coffee houses were popular thanks to the Arab and Persian influence.  Other common drinks included ubiquitous water in Eastern India and buttermilk in Northern India (a by-product from making ghee – Indians churned yogurt as opposed to the European method of churning cream).

The European East India merchants brought tea back to India as part of the exchange for goods they traded with China.  Indian employees of the company took to drinking this draught, but for a long while regarded tea as a medicine, preferring milk or fruit juice for refreshment.

In the 1820s, British stationed in in Assam noticed plants cultivated that remarkably resembling tea, and decided further investigation was in order.  The British, specifically the East India Company, felt that the Chinese might have a monopoly on tea and were seeking more leverage in their negotiations.  They were also concerned at the Chinese reliance on small households who grew tea on tiny plots of land as a haphazard and unreliable method of production.  Given that the company was required to always  have a years supply of tea on hand to protect the tea loving British population for any shortages, a stable, supply chain was a must.   [Lizzie Collingham, Curry, A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, Oxford University Press, 2006, p. 190, 191]  During this time, tea consumption in India did not catch on, as it was an expensive drink with all the associated paraphernalia: tea pots, china cups and saucers, sugar owls, milk jugs, etc.

In the early 1900s, the East India Company woke up to the fact that a huge (untapped) customer base was literally in its back yard, and a marketing campaign started.  Itinerate European travelers whose job it was to convince grocers that they needed to stock tea, traveled from town to town; given the shear size of India, you may imagine that this was a daunting prospect.  With not much to show for their efforts, a second approach was put into play; tea stalls were established at factories, mills; anywhere that thirsty workers would prove captive customers.  These converts took this habit home to their families and friends and acceptance took root.  They also ensured that pliers of tea (chai wallah) found their way on to rail cars tempting parched travelers with this delightful beverage, that they adapted to the Indian tastes.  Despite being trained in the European method of tea making, they added plenty of milk and sugar to the mix to appeal to local taste.  The same adaptation applied to the tea hawkers that set up shops in India’s cities and ports.  Following the shops, demonstrators were sent to towns to educate the women of the household who would not have frequented the tea hawkers.  During world war II tea vans were incorporated to concentrate on the army, even following Indian troops to the European arena.

Preparation

The simplest traditional method of preparing masala chai is to simmer or boil a mixture of milk and water with loose leaf tea, sweeteners, and whole spices.  Some folks prefer all water and others prefer just the opposite.  Indian markets the world over sell brands of “chai masala,” for this purpose, though many households blend their own. The solid tea and spice residues are strained off from masala chai before serving.  The involuntary whiff of perfumed air confirms the day is headed in the right direction.

The method varies by taste or local custom: some households may combine all of the ingredients at the start, bring the mixture to a boil, then immediately strain and serve; others leave the mixture simmering for a longer duration, or begin by only bringing the tea leaves to a boil and adding the spices toward the end (or vice-versa).  Like a good curry, ragu or any other popular regional dish or drink, no fixed recipe or preparation method for masala chai exists as families have their own versions of the tea. If you want to stir up a good debate, ask about the best way to make chai.

Because of the large range of possible variations, masala chai is considered a class of tea rather than a specific kind. However, all masala chai has the following four basic components:  Masala Chai = tea (chai) + sweetener + milk + spices (masala)

the foundation for the masala chai

Tea

The base tea is usually requires a strong black tea such as Assam, so that it is not overpowered by the spices and sweeteners, although this too can be open to interpretation.  The tea leaves (or tea dust) steep in the hot water long enough to extract intense flavor, ideally without releasing the bitter tannins.

Sweetener

Plain white sugar, Demerara sugar, other brown sugars, palm or coconut sugars, or honey is used. Jaggery is also used as a sweetener, mostly in rural parts of India. Large quantities of sugar may be required to bring out the flavor of the spices, which for the sweet tooths may not be a bad thing.  Some drinkers prefer condensed milk for the dual-purpose of sweetener and dairy addition.

Milk

Whole milk is usually favored for its richness. Some of the differences, if you’ve had chai in India and try to replicate it at and have that its close, but not quite there feeling, this may be why.  Indians often use a blend of cow and buffalo milk.  The milk is often acquired direct from the source the same day it finds itself in a steaming cup of chai.  Also the milk is not processed like in the states, its whole milk with cream, not half and half or some other combination.

spices galore

Spices

The traditional masala chai is a bracing, strongly spiced beverage brewed with “warm” spices. The bare bones chai wallah tea uses simply fresh ginger and green cardamom pods, but most masala chai found in restaurants or homes “kick it up a notch” with additions of: cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, fennel seeds, peppercorn, and cloves.  The region in which the masala chai is made has a lot to do with the combination of spices used.  For example, the Kashmiri chai is brewed with green tea instead of black tea, and a blend of almonds, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and sometimes saffron. In Bhopal, a pinch of salt might be added. Other possible ingredients include nutmeg, rose (where rose petals are boiled along with the loose-leaf tea), or licorice root.

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29 comments for “Masala Chai: India’s Wonder Drink

  1. March 6, 2011 at 5:49 PM

    Great info on one of my favorite drinks. Thank you for another informative post!
    Lynn recently posted..A birthday- a coconut cake- and neglecting the blog

  2. March 6, 2011 at 7:04 PM

    I’ve always been a huge tea drinker. I like my tea, dark, strong, slightly bitter and without any sugar. I might give masala chai a try, someday! Great post, as always!
    Azita recently posted..Kookoo Sabzi with Walnuts and Barberries

  3. March 6, 2011 at 9:42 PM

    I love masala chai, especially since I stopped drinking coffee throughout the day… I always love reading your posts and learning so much!
    Andrea@WellnessNotes recently posted..Butternut Squash Triangoli and a Salad A Delicious Weekend Lunch

  4. March 6, 2011 at 10:14 PM

    There is nothing better than a cup of this on a cold night. One of my fave Indian restaurants, Vij’s in Vancouver, gives every diner a cup the moment they are seated. It’s such a great way to welcome you to the restaurant.

  5. March 7, 2011 at 7:24 AM

    Interesting how the Brits introduced tea to India – yes a daunting task. But then love how the Indians made it their own. The spices always lull me.
    Claudia recently posted..Bowled over by ricotta mousse and blogging info

  6. March 7, 2011 at 11:56 AM

    I love the spice mixes used for chai…and I was introduced to rose in chai last year. I found a great Indian grocery store here in London where you can get a giant bag of dried rose petals for 5GBP! I don’t really like milk in my tea, but with chai tea its heavenly.
    gastroanthropologist recently posted..Walnut Prune Oat Cookies

  7. March 7, 2011 at 3:38 PM

    town to town,twice, yes how daunting a task. I always thought the introduction of tea was from India, wonderful post. I love the addition of rose petals in my tea, adds a touch of romance to my day!
    have a great week!
    sweetlife

  8. March 7, 2011 at 4:58 PM

    I have never had a masala chai, sounds like a wonderful drink, so aromatic with all those spices!
    5 Star Foodie recently posted..Cookbook Review- Debi Shawcross Friends at the Table

  9. March 7, 2011 at 6:19 PM

    This tea sounds very tasty…I still have to try it. Thank you so much for introducing me to it. Have a wonderful week!

  10. March 8, 2011 at 8:41 AM

    I love chai tea, and this is such a great overview of it! This is such a great history, thanks for putting it together! I’m going to send it to my aunt, she is a huge fan of chai!
    Alex@Spoonful of Sugar Free recently posted..Chocolate- Banana- and Peanut Butter

  11. March 8, 2011 at 12:58 PM

    Heard a lot about it but have never tried it since I’m not much of a tea drinker and when I do have tea I prefer it without milk.

  12. March 8, 2011 at 11:08 PM

    I’m one of those people who steeps the tea leaves directly in the simmered milk. I learned it from an Indian friend. Though I didn’t know that they make it with buffalo milk also. That’s be interesting. How do you like yours made?
    Kitchen M recently posted..Miso Braised Pike Mackerel

  13. March 8, 2011 at 11:30 PM

    I can’t say I’m a fan of chai…I think when it comes to tea, I like straight up tea with a clear, clean flavor. But I love how your posts make me rethink and really appreciate something I previously didn’t…just showing the process and history of it really opens one’s tastebuds! :-)

  14. March 10, 2011 at 3:14 AM

    I tasted masala chai for the first time when I met my husband’s grandma. It was so delicious. The fragrance was so invigorating. I had a few sips. The problem was that I ended up all night and finally collapsed in exhaustion the next morning at 10 a.m.!! The caffeine is very strong :-P
    Jackie (Phamfatale.com) recently posted..Mango Rice Pudding Recipe

  15. March 10, 2011 at 7:47 AM

    You are not going to believe this, LouAnn. I had my very first taste of Masala Chai just the other day. It’s a long story but I must say, a delightful experience.

    Naturally, I wanted to further investigate the culinary quest of Chai and lo and behold, here it is. Excellent post! Now, I appreciate my experience even more…

    Thank you so much for sharing all this wonderful information. I feel so smart now:)
    Louise recently posted..A Thank You and A Give-Away

  16. March 10, 2011 at 8:56 AM

    I think I’m guilty of saying chai tea. And soba noodles and I’m sure several others! ;) I didn’t know that coffee was popular in Southern India first. I’m glad the invention of spiced tea came next though.
    lisaiscooking recently posted..Kim Boyce- What Are You Reading

  17. March 12, 2011 at 1:15 PM

    Louann, I enjoyed your fine historic overview of tea. Chai is a favourite of mine, though I usually associate it with Indian meals, and whenever I have it, I think I should drink it more often.

    I hadn’t thought about pleonastic problems in years – good lexicon lesson or brush up, you etymologist, you.

    Thanks,

    Dan
    IslandEAT recently posted..Avgolemono Soup- Fast Flavourful Greek Egg-Lemon Soup

  18. March 14, 2011 at 4:24 PM

    Chai does indeed make me extremely happy! From my very first taste I was completely hooked. It is one of the best thing on Earth!
    Reeni recently posted..Irish Soda Bread

  19. March 18, 2011 at 4:45 AM

    Lovely and colorful recipes . that’s good look and cool ideas for recipes i loved that . interesting this post and i just try make this recipes and i think its very testy

  20. March 20, 2011 at 2:52 AM

    thnaks for the post I did not the >Chai !!
    cheers de paris
    pierre
    pierre recently posted..Primavera petits pois gingembre- courgette- roquette poudre de tomate

  21. March 21, 2011 at 4:10 AM

    There is absolutely nothing like masala chai. I even think I’d be willing to trade a Starbucks latte if I could get it around here everyday. :) We had just a sampling when in Southeast Asia and I was completely hooked. Such an interesting history on tea and how it all came about.
    Lori recently posted..A Dog Biscuit Cookbook- a Rescue Pug and a Fundraiser

  22. March 23, 2011 at 12:26 PM

    I was at a local market in Toulouse a couple of weeks ago and a group of “old hippies” were selling cups of steaming hot homemade chai. It was really cold and we felt mentally and physically renewed after a cup!
    Crystal recently posted..Supper with Susie and Eddie

  23. March 24, 2011 at 9:43 AM

    I really like the second video of the young guy making chai. He’s very athletic about it and the music is great.

    So interesting to learn about the historical migration of tea throughout Asia. From here, it is so simple to assume that everything in India has been the same for ages. Your story puts things into much better perspective and helps to reduce stereotyping about other nations. Thanks!
    Stevie recently posted..weirdcombos kitchen update- the “fun” has started

  24. March 24, 2011 at 5:12 PM

    As always a fantastic read…sounds like a beautiful tea, I could not play the video but will try again later :)
    Magic of Spice recently posted..Whats for lunch An Organic Gardeners Salad

  25. March 31, 2011 at 11:01 AM

    I tried making masala chai at home once. I can’t say it is the good real authentic way of doing it but I guess it was a simple homemade version. Love the cardamon in it :)

  26. April 2, 2011 at 4:06 PM

    The video is very interesting, because I noticed that the milk is mixed in separately, which was always intuitive to me. Yet most recipes call for the milk, tea water and spices to be heated all at once. My preference is for a stronger and spicier tea, the more variety of spices the better. I’ll have to try the method of steeping spices and tea separately next time.
    Christine @ Fresh Local and Best recently posted..Snap Pea Shiitake Mushroom Tofu Stir Fry

  27. April 10, 2011 at 10:36 PM

    really very tasty its tea. i just try make this tea at my home. interesting details shared in the post. amazing your idea i like it .thanks

  28. April 10, 2011 at 10:38 PM

    really very tasty its tea. i just try make this tea at my home. interesting details shared in the post. thanks

  29. JC
    July 9, 2011 at 12:12 PM

    I love Chai and have my own blend. I have switched from dairy to almond or soy milk, so am looking forward to trying that in my Chai.

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