Chai – What Is It?
It’s a little ironic, that today we try to tease those avid coffee drinkers away from their regular shot of coffee, from those rich fine roasted beans, with a sweet, spiced, milky drink called chai. Today just about every coffee outlet, from the corner café to global giants like Starbucks, have at least one – if not many – variations of chai on their menu. How long will it be before the comedians create a similar skit to the one in Steve Martin’s 1991 movie, L.A.Story, where a group of friends are ordering coffees from a waiter – “I’ll have a decaf coffee”; “I’ll have a decaf espresso”; “I’ll have a double decaf cappuccino”; “Give me decaffeinated coffee ice cream”; “I’ll have a half double decaffeinated half-caf, with a twist of lemon”; to which all then add a twist of lemon!
The word chai is used in many countries around the world and simply means ‘tea’. What many of us in the English speaking world regard as chai, or chai latte, is a sweetened milky tea flavoured with spices like cinnamon, cardamom, and ginger. This style of tea has its roots in the back streets of Kolkata, India, where it is referred to as masala chai – spiced tea.
Masala chai like most tea has many myths about its origins. Some say it’s been around for thousands of years, stemming back to the Vedic period in Indian history. This is unlikely when talking about our present day style of black tea and spices, as black tea had not infiltrated Indian culture so early on, apart from a few tribes in the upper Assam region. Some say its origins are derived from the herbal medicines of the Ayurvedic practice, but more likely the practice of producing the modern day masala chai comes from the chai wallahs from the streets of India.
The British industrial machine worked off the backbreaking labour of working class men and women of the Empire. A tradition that is synonymous with the British Empire is the par-taking of tea, whether it was in the high class houses of London, on the shop floor of the factory or at the furthest far flung outpost of the Empire. Tea was what made the British Empire, great.
Early in the 20th century, tea as a beverage was introduced to the greater population of India and promoted through industry, down mines, in workshops and factories. The consumption by the average Indian at this time was very low, but with the assistance of the Indian Tea Association, which at the time was a British owned institution, workers of India were encouraged to drink more tea. The chai wallahs – who were a big part of this promotion – would add in to the brew more milk, spices and larger amounts of sugar, so reducing the amount of expensive leaf tea required. This was not to the liking of the Indian Tea Association but the taste for this sweet spiced milky drink was out on the streets; and nowhere more so, than the back streets of Kolkata.
Today’s businesses continue that line of adapting a theme and create chai’s that come as instant dissolving powders or syrups. There are also a plethora of chai blends around the world, or you can simply step back and create your own chai blend. Most blends contain a selection of spices, usually including some of the following: cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, cloves, pepper corns, star anise, or fennel seed. Add your chosen spices to a strong black tea base like a small leaf Assam, to create flavour. As always with tea, your special blend of homemade chai is best enjoyed when shared with family and friends, or even passed down through generations, as is done with many Indian families.
Enjoy your chai!