October 2017

The History of Chai
[Culture-August 2008]

Even though Chai is a generic term used to refer to “tea” in India, it tends to refer to Masala Chai in the United States. a “Chai Tea Latte” by several companies since consumers do not know what chai is. When they hear “tea latte” they automatically know that it is referring to a milky tea beverage. However, most consumers of this so called “Chai Tea Latte” do not know anything about the origination of the word Chai and some even think it is a Chinese word or is pronounced “Kai.”


Chai has a history that is over 5000 years old! Some stories say that it was invented by a royal king in the ancient courts of India. It’s roots can be traced back to “ayurveda”, the natural healing system of the Hindus. The word “chai” and it’s variations are used throughout South Asia and the Middle East. It may have been derived from the Chinese word for tea, cha. Even though there is no fixed recipe for chai it is typically prepared with loose black tea, milk, water, and sugar. Masalas, or spices, are added to make “masala chai” and may include any of the following: cardamon, cinnamon, ginger, star anise, black pepper, cloves, nutmeg, saffron, and fennel. Other possible ingredients, though not traditionally used in the preparation of chai, include vanilla, chocolate, cocoa, carob and even licorice.

Most chai in India is brewed with a strong black tea. However, Kashmiri Chai is brewed with gunpowder tea. This is a form of Chinese green tea in which each tea leaf is rolled into a tiny pellet. It takes its English name from resembling gunpowder pellets used in cannons. Even though gunpowder tea was first introduced to Taiwan in the 1800s it its production dates back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The green-tea based Kashmiri Chai is prepared with almonds, cinnamon, black pepper, cardamon, and sometimes saffron.
Drinking chai has always been a part of life in India, where chai is more popular than coffee, and “chai wallahs” are a common site in many Indian neighborhoods. These vendors brew their chai in huge kettles over small charcoal fires. The chai is often served in clay containers called kullarhs that are smashed afterwards. These unglazed pots impart an earthy flavor to the chai. Since chai is an every day beverage in most Indian households it can be found wherever people may gather, such as, train and bus stations, market places, and tiny tea stalls scattered around towns. Most Indians are amazed with the current fuss over drinking “chai” in the West. Chai not only provides a warm and soothing effect but also acts as a digestive aid. So what is chai? Basically, it really just means tea! However, in some places, mainly South Asia, it refers to tea leaves boiled along with milk, water, sugar, and maybe some masalas. There are several different recipes and can vary between families.

Leaves of the plant camellia sinensis are dried and processed to make tea. Herbal teas or herbal infusions are not really teas because they don’t come from the camellia sinensis plant and in order for something to qualify as “tea” it must do so. They usually consist of dried flowers, herbs, or any other dried plant or fruit. Often times herbal infusions can be added as mixtures to black or green teas, such as an herbal green tea, for example. Indian or Assam tea consists of large leaves that generally thrive at lower altitudes. In China, the leaves are generally smaller and thrive at higher altitudes. According to a popular story, the second emperor of China, Shen Nung, discovered tea when tea leaves blew into his cup of hot water.

Black tea contains the most powerful antioxidants known to science. Chai is also known to fight many different types of cancers, lower cholesterol and blood pressure and may even reduce the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Tea is full of many substances that can prevent everything from heart disease to strokes and boost the immune system at the same time. Some of the masalas added to Masala Chai also have many benefits and can be traced back to Ayurvedic principles in their use. Ginger is well-known to fight off colds and flus. It also strenghthens and heals the digestive and respiratory system. Recent studies show that it can be effective in preventing motion sickness in addition to removing congestion, soothing sore throats and body aches. Cloves are also useful for colds and flus because they help regenerate the heat in the body. Cinnamon is a stimulant to other herbs and enables them to work faster. Pepper imparts a warmth to the body. Cardamon stimulates the mind and gives clarity. Nutmeg is used for its rich flavor. Fennel calms the digestive system.

Today, chai can be found in many forms of which one of the most popular is liquid concentrate. There are also chai powders and of course tea bags but the most traditional method of brewing chai remains tea leaves. Chai has begun to claim more and more space on beverage menus throughout coffehouses, cafes, and and dining venues throughout America. It is now served in a numerous number of ways such as hot like a latte, which is its most traditonal form or cold, either iced or frozen. It can also be found in eggnogs, popular fast food milk shakes, exotic cocktails, and even desserts! Starbucks currently offers chai tea lattes, iced chai tea lattes and even chai creme frappuccinos. Other popular coffeehouses have made chai muffins and chai poundcakes out of liquid chai concentrate. The liquid chai concentrate is most popularly used because of its convenience. It can be opened and refrigerated and then reused. Many fine retailers say that chai is directed towards younger consumers and is targeted around college and university areas because they are willing to try new things. Chai has also been added to many other popular and traditional flavors such as pumpkin and most commonly eggnog for the formation of Eggnog Chai.

Chai has definetly come a far way and has transformed and changed many traditional beverages as well as created new ones but exactly how far back can the history of tea be traced? In fact, the history of chai goes further back than South Asia even though that is where it is most commonly associated with. China is considered to have the earliest records of drinking tea as far back as the first millenium BC. The Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) used tea as a medicine and its use as a beverage for social occasions and pleasure can be dated back to the Tang Dynasty (618 AD-906 AD) or earlier.

In the United States, chai has been served since the 1940s in Indian restaurants. However, during the 1960s and 70s, as yoga developed and there was a increase in Eastern religions throughout the country, chai drinking became more widespread. Chai wasn’t actually served in cafes until the 1980s. Today, chai can be found just about everywhere even though the traditional brewing method is rarely used. Most chai served throughout the country is made from either liquid concentrate or an instant powder.

The history of chai is not only social but political as well. It is the basis for milestones such as the East India Trading Comany, the Opium Wars, the world’s most powerful monopolies, and the Boston Tea Party. Chai has quickly become the modern way of entertaining and in a lot of cases is considered more popular than coffee! Even though most popular teas such as Darjeeling and Assam come from India there are many common Chinese teas as well. Each tea is distinct to its region and has special properties like no other. For example, Darjeeling is named after a province in northeast India and the tea is often referred to as the champagne of teas because it is highly praised for its aroma and full body. It also has a wide range of flavors from floral to nutty. Jasmine tea is scented with jasmine flowers and sometimes may include the actual blooms.

The preparation of chai identifies where it originated from such as black tea leaves that are boiled with milk, water, ginger, cardamon, cloves, and sugar or honey can be directly linked to South Asia. Kashmiri chai, called shirchai, is prepared in a way that it turns pink. Arabs enjoy black tea that is blended with mint and sugar and Americans sip tea with lemon. With all these popular methods of consuming chai it’s no wonder that more and more teahouses are opening up in every major city. One of the newest tea trends is Tapioca Bubble or Pearl Tea. This drink originated in Taiwan and comes in flavors such as strawberry, watermelon, honeydew, almond, coconut and many more. It is poured over ice and served with large, candy-like tapioca balls.

There is definetly more to chai than just Lipton. In fact, there is a whole new world of chai out there with an array of unique flavors just waiting to be discovered and tasted. Loose leaf tea is still considered the most traditional method of brewing chai and can be found in many popular grocery stores and online. It may take time for you to develop a chai recipe that suits your taste but a few tries and you’ll be able to impress yourself and your guests for hours! Chai is definetly not something new; it is an age-old tradition that can now be enjoyed with a unique and flavorful modern twist that is sure to impress your tastebuds!

[As seen in June 2007 of Rivaaj]

[photocredits: chai-wallah.com]

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One Response to “The History of Chai”

  1. Senesa Says:

    Great website! Very informative!

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