(Semi) mythic origins
It’s interesting to note that Indian masala chai and the camellia sinensis plant that true tea derives from are both steeped in half historical and half mythical origins. In fact, the delicious beverage we today know as masala chai did not even contain “chai”. The word “chai” is a loanword based on the Chinese word “cha” meaning camellia sinensis, but the original masala chai did not even contained this plant. The origins of these incredible beverages are both said to have originated 3-9000 years ago. Tea, believed to have been discovered by the semi-mythical divine emperor Shennong, in China. While masala chai was said to have been developed by a king in what is now modern day India. The King wanted to develop a panacea based on Indian Ayurveda medicine. Ayurveda is a traditional form of healing strongly rooted in Hinduism and Indic spirituality and sciences. Ayurveda seeks to harmonize mind, body and spirit by utilizing various natural herbs, spices and foods as well as yoga, meditation and other lifestyle changes to balance our bodily elements. And that is just what the king was trying to achieve for he and his subjects. A beverage that was a health tonic and that would balance the bodily elements to attain harmony. You can read more about the health benefits of chai here.
An Ayurveda panacea, the origins of masala chai
The king sought out a half dozen or so choice Ayurveda ingredients. Ginger and black pepper to aid in digestion. Cloves to work as an antiseptic and pain reliever. Cardamom to elevate the drinker’s mood and spirit. Cinnamon for circulation and to aid in respiratory functions. And also star anise, which, last but certainly not least, was used to keep the drinker’s breath nice and fresh. This recipe was more of a guideline than a rule and the style and technique of brewing differed from region, to village, to even household. The same is true today, where the ingredients and brewing methods may differ from place to place when brewing masala chai. But the aforementioned ingredients usually serve as the basic backbone of this beverage.
Masala meets chai
Despite the fact that India’s Assam region is one of the birthplaces of the camellia sinensis plant, it was not until the arrival of the British that large scale tea production and cultivation took place in India. The Assam variety of tea plants were found to be highly conducive to making quality black tea. Black tea differs from other types of tea like green or Oolong in that it is oxidized, or left to dry and ferment much longer than other types of tea. This longer drying and slight fermentation process not only changes the leaves color from green to black (hence the name in English), but it also creates a bolder, stronger flavor, a big dose of caffeine, and the fermentation helps gut bacteria thrive and promotes digestion. In other words, a great addition to an already healthy and exquisite beverage!
The British owned tea plantations were originally for cultivating tea for export, and so for many locals tea was an expensive commodity that was difficult to get. But by the 1800’s black tea and also milk were beginning to be added to the already existent masala chai recipes. However, it wasn’t until the 1900’s when the British-owned Indian Tea Association started to encourage tea consumption in India, especially for their workers during the time that the British would normally reserve for their own afternoon tea times. In order to balance out the expense of tea leaves, many tea vendors would add in milk and other ingredients to keep the beverage tasty but also not too expensive that it would break the bank! This helped to give masala chai popular appeal, one that really took off in the ‘60’s with the development of the Crush, Tear, Curl or CTC method of tea harvesting. This mass harvesting method gave the tea a bold flavor that synergizes well with the sweet and spicy ingredients normally found in masala chai and also made tea more affordable for many people in India.
Masala chai in India today
Today, masala chai is still a staple of many people’s daily lives. Chai wallahs or “tea persons” serve chai as street vendors, on trains and even in offices. For many people in India today, chai is an all day beverage to enjoy, especially around early evening when chai is taken alongside snacks. A trip to India is where quality chai was born.
Masala cha in the United States
Masala chai was introduced to America mainly by spiritual pilgrims who traveled to India during the ‘60’s and ‘70’s looking for insight and religious experiences. Many returned home with not only a new perspective on mind, body and soul, but also a taste for masala chai. From here the beverage was introduced to America in earnest. Today masala chai, or just “chai” as it is often listed on menus, is a common feature in many cafes and coffee houses. But the chai found in America is often very different than the original Ayurveda health tonic found in India. For starters different ingredients like various kinds of milk and even vanilla ice cream to make iced chai or chai inspired frappes are added to masala chai. And, while in India, many of the ingredients in chai are made fresh or from scratch with whole ginger and cinnamon and other ingredients often prepared by hand and brewed accordingly, in America and other countries around the world, masala chai may come from a syrup concentrate or sold as a tea blend. It is common to be able to find “chai” or “masala chai” flavored tea bags for sale at grocery stores or other retailers, too!
Ancient and modern
From an ancient Ayurveda cure-all to a modern coffee house masterpiece. Masala chai is certainly an exquisite and incredible drink. Masala chai is also an example of how the ancient can innovate, change, move and grow depending on circumstances. With such a rich in tradition drink, it’s time to get your chai essentials. Let us all brew a nice cup of chai, and reflect on the regal and medicinal beginnings of this marvelous pick-me up!
Goodwin, Lindsey. “Did You Know Chai Tea Is Thousands of Years Old?” The Spruce Eats, The Spruce Eats, 23 Jan. 2019, www.thespruceeats.com/the-history-of-masala-chai-tea-765836.
“Masala Chai.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 31 July 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masala_chai.
“What Is Chai?” Teatulia, www.teatulia.com/tea-varieties/what-is-chai.htm.