What is Chai?
Chai is a Hindi word derived from the Chinese word “cha”, both of which translate to mean tea. Chai, in the way we know it, is actually “masala chai” which means spiced tea. While recipes can vary, the traditional ingredients stay relatively the same. It begins with a strong black tea base that is filled with powerful spices like peppercorns, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves. This infusion of ingredients is boldly brewed in milk with sugar or even honey.
The History of Chai
Anciently, chai didn’t include tea from the Camellia Sinensis plant at all. It was simply a mixture of herbs and spices derived from the ayurvedic practices of the day. Its creation came by royal decree of the king who wanted a spiced healing tonic. Quickly, the popularity of the tonic spread across India adopting different variations of spices depending on the region. It was only in the last two hundred years that black tea was introduced as well as milk and sugar. With the takeover by British imperialism, a merging of cultures occurred where the English’ love of strong black tea melded with the coveted spiced drink of India.
Created for its Health Benefits
As we talked about earlier, the origins of chai came about because the king of the day decreed that a healing drink of spices be made. The healing practices of the region during that time were founded on an all-natural, holistic approach to well-being where herbs and spices were used for medicinal purposes. It was believed that disease was the result of imbalances within a person’s being. By incorporating herbs and spices into your diet, you could achieve a balance of body, mind, and spirit. This natural system of medicine is known as Ayurveda.
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Chai is comprised of many spices believed to bring healing to various parts of the body. Ginger as well as the black peppercorn are known for supporting proper digestive health. Cinnamon is believed to aid in the circulatory and respiratory processes of the body. Cardamom is meant as an upper, helping to elevate a person’s mood while the cloves were regarded as the pain reliever of the day. Of course, black tea brings many of its own health benefits including a high amount of antioxidants.
The Anatomy of a Good Chai
Again, when we are talking chai we really are talking about spiced tea, and depending on the region, culture, or family preferences, the recipe can widely vary. So, let’s get into the basic traditional ingredients and then talk about a few of their variations.
Tea: Black tea was the favored beverage of the British Empire which had a profound influence on Indian culture. Teas such as black Assam and Darjeeling are common tea to be found in chai considering they are native to India. While this may be the most popular, you may also find green tea chai as well as other herbal chai such as yerba mate and rooibos.
Spices: The traditional spices of a chai include ginger, peppercorns, cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves. These were the traditional spices of chai because they were the most plentiful within the region. Yet, other ingredients have since been added offering new and exciting variations of the traditional beverage. These include may include vanilla, nutmeg, star anise, or fennel.
Milk: Traditional Indian chai is made with milk and more specifically buffalo milk. Buffalo milk is higher in fat, protein, lactose, vitamin, and minerals than cow’s milk. It also has a thicker consistency and tends to be whiter. The use of cow’s milk and other dairy and non-dairy kinds of milk is acceptable, however, each variation changes the experience slightly. And, of course, chai can also be made without milk.
Sweetener: You can always take your chai without sweetener, but it really does make for a blander experience. The added sweetener will not mask the spices and flavors rather it will elevate them making them more pronounced. The most popular method is to use unrefined cane sugar, but white or brown sugar can also be used along with honey or even coconut.
A Myriad of Chai Options
Masala Chai Black Tea
This organic traditional masala black tea from India is blended with ginger, cinnamon, green cardamom, and natural flavors. Organic chai in India is rare these days. This tea is best enjoyed as it’s prepared in India. Simmer equal parts water and organic milk, throw in your tea, and continue to simmer. Add some sugar, strain into tiny cups, and enjoy.
Spiced Apple Chai Black Tea
This chai is a juicy rendition of a masala chai. Think of it as a spicy apple cider black tea. With classic chai ingredients like cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, and cloves and the addition of orange, apple pieces and natural flavors. Add some vanilla sugar and some milk.
Turmeric Chai Black Tea
Another unique blend of chai flavors with the added earthy, peppery spice of turmeric. Full of healthy curcumin, this tea also has the benefits of aniseed, chili peppers, cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, cloves, and peppercorn. A perfect brew with a little almond milk and vanilla sugar.