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Although rumor has it that the history of Indian chai origins can be traced back 5000-9000 years to an Indian king who ordered a traditional healing beverage to be made using Ayurveda herbs and spices, chai was not a beverage popularly consumed in India until it was colonized by the British and the East Indian Company started to manufacture and trade in tea. In the early 1900s, the Indian Tea Association ran a campaign in India to increase the consumption of tea, and this led to the popularity of Indian chai. Now chai is offered in every Indian home, numerous tea stalls dot the streets, and kulhad chai is offered in trains and railway stations to make this loved and comforting beverage easily accessible. Even outside India, in the larger urban cities in the U.S., and the rest of the world, Indian chai tea is often the morning beverage for some, and chai tea lattes or Indian chai tea are usually available on the menu of coffee shops and cafes. Starbucks chai tea latte did make chai popular in the U.S., but now people are gravitating towards more authentic and healthier Indian chai tea recipes that are zesty and not as sugary.
Related Read: Chai Tea: What’s in an (incorrect) name?
India's beautiful diversity is also observed in the myriad of special chai recipes from different Indian states. From North to South and East to West, the chai recipe generally changes, as do the delicious savory or sweet snacks that are served with it. Kashmir also has two different preparations of chai, one being the Kahwa and the other being Noon Chai. Kahwa is made by steeping green tea with almonds, saffron, rose petals, and aromatic spices like cardamom and cloves. Noon Chai, or Pink Chai from the exotic land of Kashmir is made in a traditional Kashmiri samovar and has green tea, milk, baking soda, salt, and aromatic spices like cardamom. The baking soda reacts with the tea leaves and gives a beautiful pink hue to the Noon Chai and hence the color.
When we were in West Bengal, we noticed that many people preferred plain black tea over milk tea, and we had the famous Lebu Chai in Kolkata. It is essentially made by adding black tea to boiling water with a dash of lime. Kolkata also has Gud Chai which is chai with jaggery (gud). Bengalis definitely love their palm jaggery! Interestingly there is a Gur Gur Chai or Butter Tea that is consumed in Ladakh and Sikkim, which is made by boiling tea leaves with Yak butter, water, and salt. As these are the coldest regions of India, it makes sense that the indigenous people wanted to add butter to their tea!
Irani Chai has a different meaning in Mumbai as compared to Hyderabad. In Mumbai, Irani chai is chai served with bun maska pav (butter buns) in Iranian cafes in Mumbai, while in Hyderabad, Irani Chai is black tea mixed with chai spices and mawa or khoya (dried evaporated milk).
Then there is Suleimani chai from Hyderabad, which is well known in Hyderabad with origins that go back to the Sultans from Arabia. It is a spiced black tea without milk with cardamom, cloves, and lime. Kerala Chai is also spicy from peppercorn but has milk.
Other fun, interesting terms associated with chai include- kadak chai, kulhad chai and cutting chai. Kadak Chai - kadak means strong and so this is a strong chai where the robustness from the black tea is very evident Kulhad Chai which means chai that is served in an earth friendly, sustainable kulhad terracotta glass. To add to this we should not forget another Mumbai renowned and much loved chai - Cutting Chai which literally means the half proportion of chai in a small glass.
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Each household has its own traditional Indian chai recipe, which is interestingly reflected even in the tea stalls (chai shops) and coffee shops serving chai. In fact, even in Atlanta, while I was eating breakfast at a cafe, the barista was proudly telling me about how he has his own special masala chai recipe that is unique to the cafe. Masala chai is traditionally a mix of spices like ginger, cardamom, cloves, pepper, and cinnamon, with other variations like star anise or fennel. Other recipes include Adrak Ki Chai (Ginger Chai), Elaichi Ki Chai (Cardamom Chai), Kesar Chai (Saffron Chai) with or without other spices. Some people also prefer an Herbal Chai with chai herbs like tulsi (holy basil), mint, etc. Also, traditionally in India, chai usually has a lot of sugar; however, now, for health reasons, some people add no sugar, others just a little tad, while many do still enjoy their sugary sweet goodness!
By now, I am sure that you are absolutely confused with what you would like in your chai. The easiest way to solve this problem would be to experiment and see what spices and herbs you enjoy in your version of Indian chai. I suggest the base of chai online or at the grocery store. My favorite is an Assam CTC (cut, tea, curl) for its bold mouthfeel and malty flavors and that it stands up to the addition of milk, chai spices, and herbs, or you could buy a premixed premium Indian chai brand that has it all (like ours!). Other states like Kerala, Nilgiri, Meghalaya, etc, also make CTC, but my favorite is Assam for its malty notes. My go to chai ingredients in our Masala Chai are ginger, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, and pepper.
The calories in chai depend on the amount of milk and sugar added and usually range from 120-180 calories in a cup. If you are looking for a low calorie tea, I would recommend having it with no sugar, and maybe less milk or trying a premium loose leaf tea instead that can be steeped, is smooth, and does not need the addition of milk.
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Just a few important housekeeping rules before we discuss our perfect chai recipe. Chai is a dish to be cooked on our stove top, not a beverage you make by steeping tea in water and adding a dash of milk. This will just give you a lukewarm cup that is not very enjoyable. Use a good quality Assam CTC and premium herbs and spices, ratios are important, and you definitely need a fine mesh strainer. Fresh ginger and high quality spices definitely make a big difference in the taste of chai.
If you want an iced chai, either make a chai concentrate with black tea, sugar, chai herbs and spices, and let it chill in the refrigerator. You can add milk and ice when you drink your iced chai. The other option is to make the recipe above with milk (dairy or plant-based), let it cool, and then chill it in the refrigerator, and it's ready to drink!
Not only is Indian chai delicious, but it also has a multitude of health benefits. Chai is definitely a cup of wellness.
Related Read: The Health Benefits of Tea
Indian chai is made with black tea and milk with or without spices (masala). The Chai latte is a more Westernized version and combines black tea, milk, and sweetened chai syrup. So chai latte is sweeter, while traditional Indian chai is spicy and zesty. The preparation method of the two also differ, and Indian chai is made over the stovetop, boiling the milk, water, black tea, spices, and herbs, while a chai latte is made by steeping black tea, adding the chai syrup and mixing in the steaming milk.
So dear reader, now that you know all about authentic Indian chai and how it differs from a chai latte, buy our chai online and try our traditional masala chai or unique chai blends. They are all made of natural herbs, spices, and single origin, directly sourced Assam black tea from some of the most premium small tea farms. In addition to Masala Chai, we have beautiful blends like Rose Cardamom Chai and Saffron Chai, signature and interesting blends like our Vanilla Lavender Chai and Cocoa Chai that have now become our best sellers and gorgeous and delicious decaffeinated Blue Chai. We are definitely chai drinkers, and we encourage you to come explore the world of chai with us.