From India with love
In a globalized world, we live in a fast paced market where the local goes global in an instant. So too, in the world of tea! Today, one can find masala chai in some incarnation and under some alternative name from Mumbai to Manhattan. But what are some of these variations? And how did this delightful beverage go from Ayurveda cure-all to coffeehouse superstar?
The origins of masala chai have been discussed on here before, but by tracing the origins of masala chai we can see how the beverage went from local to global and underwent some name and ingredient changes. It all begins (according to legend) with an Indian king developing an Ayurveda drink to act as a medicinal tonic. Fast forward to the development of tea plantations during British colonial rule in India when milk and black tea get added to the recipe, and then fast forward to today. But between the invention of masala chai and today a few different events happened.
Masala chai in Africa
During the colonial period many Indian workers travelled to parts of Africa that were also under British colonial rule. Among some of the things these Indian immigrants brought with them to Africa included the recipe and taste for masala chai, which became a feature of African tea culture, especially in East Africa. In Kenya, masala chai is known as chai ya tangawizi, or Kenyan ginger tea. The recipe for this Kenyan variation is very similar to the original masala chai recipe and the tea is also often enjoyed and brewed to help soothe and combat symptoms of the common cold. In Somalia there is a variation of masala chai known as shaah. Shaah’s recipe is also very similar to the original masala chai recipe, and it is enjoyed especially after large meals as a digestif.
Masala chai in the Middle East and Arab Gulf
Masala chai and certain variations thereof are also popular in the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait and also Saudi Arabia. In the Middle East masala chai is known in many Arab countries as chai karak. The ingredients in chai karak may include some modifications to masala chai’s original recipe including more sugar and nutmeg, which can also be used in Indian style masala chai. Condensed or evaporated milk is occasionally used as well.
The cultural diffusion of masala chai to Africa and the Middle East features masala chai mostly staying the same, with the exception of naming traditions. Masala chai in Africa and the Middle East was mostly diffused by Indian merchants and immigrant workers. The tea traditions of Indian immigrants combined with native and British tea culture often formed a melting pot of sorts with masala chai recipes in these regions. But it is masala chai in the West, particularly the United States where the most changes have occurred.
Masala chai in America
To start, the story of masala chai’s trip to America is said to have occurred during the Hippie movement in the United States. This occurred in the ‘60’s into the ‘70’s and included many Westerners from the United States and other countries going on spiritual pilgrimages to India, with the goal of reaching cities like Benares or Varanasi in particular. These European and North American pilgrims found many things in India, one in particular was masala chai, which many brought back to their home countries on their return journeys. Or so the story goes. An interesting name change that happened along the way was the dropping of “masala” in the beverage’s name. So on café menus it will be listed as just “chai” or more interestingly, “chai tea”. The reason “chai tea” is an amusing name change is because “chai” is the loanword from Chinese “cha” and just means, “tea”. So the name on many menus and items is effectively, “tea-tea”!
Besides this funny naming tradition comes the many different ways masala chai is prepared in the West. Masala chai may be premade from a convenient powdered or syrup mixture. This only requires one to add hot water to the powder or syrup to effectively make masala chai. In addition to this, there are tea bags one can purchase at grocery stores and other retailers. The teabags contain all the prepared ingredients for masala chai and again, just require hot water.
But that is not all. As iced tea is very popular in America, variations of masala chai as a cold drink exist, too. Some masala chai is just an iced variant, more or less being the same ingredients, albeit most likely from a syrup or concentrate, and put on ice rather than consumed hot. In addition frozen chai and masala chai style frappes exist as well. These may swap out the simmered milk of masala chai for vanilla ice cream, frozen yogurt or some other type of cold milk substitute. While the changes to masala chai in America may be far different than the original recipe from India, many cafes and coffeehouses view masala chai as a specialty item and one deserving of artisanal preparation. Here, masala chai is lended an air of sophistication and though its name and some of its preparation methods have been altered, masala chai is afforded a great deal of respect in many cafes and coffeehouses.
Ancient and modern
Masala chai has undergone many changes. In its ingredients, in its name, in the way it is enjoyed. As we live in an age of speed and information, we may see masala chai undergo some more changes, too. Both within, and outside of India. So, whether you are enjoying Somali shaah, American style “chai” or traditional masala chai, make sure you inhale its rich, spicy aroma and savor every last sip. This beverage is a truly remarkable and delicious feat of tea mastery. And one that has staying power and a charisma that will keep its ancient legacy persisting into each new era we humans find ourselves, and our desire for tea in. So feel free to take a long drink of masala chai, under any of its names, under any of its various incarnations, today!
Arora, Sunita, et al. “The Magic of Indian Masala Chai.” GOQii, 18 Mar. 2019, goqii.com/blog/the-magic-of-indian-masala-chai/.
“The Global Evolution of Chai.” World Tea News, 25 Sept. 2018, worldteanews.com/tea-industry-news-and-features/global-evolution-chai.
Noor, Abderazzaq. “Just My Cup of Tea – Somali Shaah Redolent with Spices.” The Somali Kitchen, www.somalikitchen.com/just-my-cup-of-tea-somali-shaah-redolent-with-spices.html/.
“The Redundancy of ‘Chai Tea’ (Masala Chai).” American Specialty Tea Alliance, 15 May 2018, specialtyteaalliance.org/world-of-tea/the-redundancy-of-chai-tea-masala-chai/
Tara, et al. “Chai Ya Tangawizi (Kenyan Ginger Tea).” Tara’s Multicultural Table, 22 Apr. 2018, tarasmulticulturaltable.com/chai-ya-tangawizi-kenyan-ginger-tea/.