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What is Chai?

Updated: Feb 12


We’re going to start from the start, because we don’t want to assume what you already know. So, if you already know a little bit about chai, stick with us, there may be something you new you learn. Chai is the Hindi (and other languages as well) word for tea. So why do people call it “Chai Tea” (“tea tea”)? Well, we reckon it has adapted this name simply because it helps to differentiate a ‘plain ol’ cuppa’ from its more exotic cousin.


Masala Chai (Spiced tea) is what we have come to call “Chai Tea” in the West. For the rest of this blog and any other, we will simply refer to this beautiful, cinnamon infused, chest warming, spiced drink as “Chai”.


A mug of chai with star anise on top

We have to go back a little in order to find the origins of Chai. This much-loved drink starts its journey in India. Now, there are many variations of this drink so we will just be talking in general terms, however we will go into these a little further in upcoming posts. Chai as we know it today has a long history and like all food stuffs taken from Eastern cultures, has at times been exploited and those involved in its production unfairly treated. We won’t be focusing in on this today (We will be dedicating full blog posts in the future to the ethical and fair treatment of farmers and other cultures), but we feel it important to highlight that we never want to be ignorant or sweep over the reality of the history of this great drink. There is much dispute over the origins of Masala Chai, but its heritage is most likely rooted in Indian culture. One thing to note is that chai originally didn’t contain any tea. It was however used as a medicine-based drink with consumers claiming medicinal benefits from the nutrient rich spices. It wasn’t until much later that it started to incorporate tea leaves.


It wasn’t until the 1830’s that chai started to look a little different. With the British Empire’s presence reaching across the Middle East; foods, spices and cultures started to move more freely. Tea was among one of these foods. Originally a Chinese plant and enjoyed for centuries in day-to-day life and rituals, the plant was brought to India and planted mostly in the Assam region.


A group of people walking through a tea garden

Tea prices at this time were high and most people in India could not afford the cost of tea. So, they introduced their “Masala” (Spices) to the black tea leaf. This created a cheaper alternative which suited the already favoured spiced palate of the nation.


As India exported a lot of the tea to Britain and Europe, this medicinal drink became a large part of the culture and the chai we have come to know and love today was created. Over time as tea became cheaper a little more of the fine black plant leaf was added to the chai.


Traders, known as Chaiwalas, would stand on every street corner and sell their chai which was often brewed to the taste of the local community. These “Chai salesmen” would mesmerise the crows as they poured their chai from hights (there is a reason, but we will cover this in another post) into cups lower down. This was a firm staple of Indian culture and has remained the same until today.


As travellers explored India and other Eastern regions, they discovered this beautiful drink and brought it across the world. Today we can enjoy chai in nearly every country in the world, all taking on a different twist and flavour.


We discovered this amazing caffinated drink while in the North East of India, sipping on sweet chai while sitting in the jungle watching geckos climb the walls and while trying not to think too much about the guide’s tales of giant snakes in the village…


So there we have it, a (very, very) brief introduction to chai and one on which we will expand upon in upcoming blog posts.


One thing we love about the world of tea is the incredible connections and growing sense of community shared by those who enjoy speciality tea. This is no longer a drink enjoyed by the select few who can afford it, but by many across the world from nearly every social class. So, as we grow as a specialty chai producer, we would love you to join us on the journey and say hello! And we hope we can enjoy a cup of chai with you someday too.


You can reach out to us on Instagram, Facebook or by sending us an email to info@chalachai.com.


Andrew McGuire

(Chala Chai Founder)






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ANDREW MCGUIRE

CHALA FOUNDER & CHAI EDUCATOR

Hello there!

If you want to learn more about chai, you have come to the right place!

 

With chai continuing to grow in popularity, there are lots of questions to be answered.

In my blog posts, I answer the questions that I receive daily from customers and those who come across Chala at markets or online.

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