- Chai – which is simply the Hindi word for tea – holds great social and cultural significance in India.
- The main ingredients in chai are tea leaves, spices, sugar, and milk.
- Chai lattes are a popular, milkier take on traditional chai.
- Visit Insider’s Home & Kitchen Reference library for more stories.
While you may be most familiar with the chai tea at your local Starbucks, chai is and has been a lifestyle in India for generations. Whether it’s a grand ceremony like a traditional Indian wedding or a small neighborhood get-together, drinking chai with your loved ones is a symbol of respect and togetherness in India. But its history is quite complex.
“Chai started out as a colonial conquest by the British, as they needed a place to grow tea outside of China since China held a monopoly on tea production,” says Ayan Sanyal, a first-generation Indian American who co-founded the Kolkata Chai Co., a cafe in New York City. “In the early 20th century, the British started a huge campaign to make tea popular amongst Indians. Tea vendors soon started adding their own ayurvedic spice blends to the tea and heavily mixing it with milk, inventing masala chai [a spice-added version of chai] as we know it.”
The British import mixed with local flavors became a smash hit and an Indian cultural export in its own right. Now, you can pick up a chai at nearly any coffee shop. But if you want to make your own at home, there are a few things to know first.
The basics of chai
While chai varies wildly from culture to culture, it breaks down into four main components: tea, spices, sweetener, and milk. You can customize each element to get the flavors, spice level, and sweetness you prefer.
Masala chai traditionally uses black tea, but you can use green tea, black tea, or whatever variety of tea leaves you have at home. You can also purchase special chai blends available online and at specialty grocery stores. There’s no “standard” flavor palate for chai, because it will differ significantly based on the tea blend you use to prepare it.
The taste of your chai is also heavily determined by the type and amount of spices you use, and what combination of spices you include. Spices are what will help give it that unique woodsy and invigorating flavor and separate it from other tea preparations.
According to Sanyal, some of the most common spices used in masala chai include cardamom, black pepper, ginger, lemongrass, mint, fennel, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves. Each of these spices has different health benefits. For example, cardamom can improve digestion, ginger reduces nausea, and cinnamon is filled with antioxidants.
“Whole milk is the best for hot chai, as it contains a lot of natural fats that create a really creamy taste,” Sanyal says. While whole milk is traditional for chai, you can really use any milk you like. Switch it up with non-dairy milk like almond, oat, or soy, or make your chai a little lighter with skim. A very traditional variation of chai even uses buffalo milk.
How much and what kind of sugar you use is entirely up to you and how sweet you want your chai.
Start with 1 or 2 teaspoons of plain sugar – remember, chai is supposed to be sweet – and you adjust to your desired taste from there. Sanyal suggests experimenting with demerara or brown sugar, maple syrup, or honey if you’re looking to try something new.
Other interpretations of chai to try
“One of the best parts about working with chai is how versatile it is,” Sanyal says. You can switch or skip some ingredients and get a completely different flavor, or even emulate the taste in baked goods.
- Add ice to make iced tea, and give it even more of a refreshing taste.
- Remove spices for a plain, more subdued flavor for your chai.
- Make chai-spiced rice pudding (Kheer) to eat with “puri” or rice during festivals and holidays.
- Bake cookies with chai concentrate for a unique woodsy flavor.
- Add spices and herbs like black pepper and lavender to create a nutritious variation for chai.
Chai is a popular drink that is not only easy to make, but it also serves a social and cultural function in India. Western adaptations of chai offer more variety and space for exploration. You can pick and choose your spices, switch the type of milk you use, tweak the recipe slightly, and get a fresh drink with a unique flavor within minutes.