Chai: An Indian ‘Special Tea’ that Delights the Tastebuds

In 2018, I was lucky enough to travel to India on a quest for spiritual expansion… and chai tea. 

I was going to explore some ancient spiritual sites (of which India has many) and spend a week meditating with a guru at a sacred temple. 

As excited as I was to be on this quest in the oldest of holy lands, I was also giddy to be a tourist amongst the brightly colored saris, wandering cows, and speeding, honking tuk-tuks.

I have always been interested in this mythical place’s rich history and cultural traditions

So, I actually had two goals on my first trip to India: find enlightenment and try authentic chai. 

And not necessarily in that order.

If you’re unfamiliar with chai, it is not just a beverage in India; it’s a cultural institution. 

Here are a few tidbits about the traditional drink:

  • Chai” means “tea” in Hindi and other languages
  • Chai is a flavorful and aromatic beverage made by brewing black tea with a mixture of spices and herbs
  • While the essential ingredients in chai remain consistent, there are regional variations of chai across India, including saltier versions, sweeter versions, and some with or without milk

So, it was my third day in the land of yoga and spices, and I’d already heard many legends of the “chaiwala.” 

Not a mythical creature, but close—the master of the streets, brewing magic in a kettle.

He was the key to finding authentic chai.

Following the waft of spices, I spotted him on a corner, his cart billowing steam like a mini Hogwarts Express. 

I bravely approached, announcing, “One chai, please!” as if I’d been ordering it my entire life. 

He looked me up and down, sizing up my tourist vibes, and responded with a smirk, “First time?”

Was it that obvious? 

Maybe it was how I fumbled my rupees or that he’d seen me mumble to myself, “Do not ask for ‘chai tea’” (a mistake you only make once). 

“No!” I lied, puffing out my chest and flashing a big, distracting smile. 

He handed me a small paper cup with what looked like liquid gold inside. 

I took my first sip of Indian chai, trying to look as experienced as possible.

It was good chai.

Very good.

But a lot spicier than expected, I felt my face warm immediately.

Upon my second sip, a tiny piece of ginger found its way into my mouth. 

This was obviously no ordinary ginger. 

It was Super-Ginger, a strain with a spiciness level that was undoubtedly over 9000 Scovilles. 

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My eyes watered, and my face reddened as I tried desperately not to let the magical brewmaster of chai or the passersby see me sweat.

But it was no use.

My nose was running, and I began coughing in a somewhat contained manner. 

The chaiwala and a small crowd of amused onlookers burst into laughter

Sheepishly, I grinned, “Guess it’s my first chai after all.”

The chaiwala smiled and winked. 

“Everyone remembers their first chai.”

And boy, will I remember mine. 

The day I faced off with Super-Ginger and lost, but found the warmth (literally) of Indian hospitality.

What is Chai tea and Masala Chai?

When people refer to chai in the West, they usually talk about masala chai, the spiced tea popular in India and neighboring countries.

Masala chai varies depending on region and personal taste, but the spices in this flavorful tea usually include cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and black peppercorns.

After brewing, it’s common to add sweeteners (like sugar) and milk or a milk substitute, which gives masala chai its characteristic creamy texture.

Masala chai originated on the Indian subcontinent many thousands of years ago, with its first references in the ancient Vedic texts of India. 

However, it was not the milky spiced tea blend we can find at our local coffee shop, but rather an herbal infusion with spices meant for medicinal and rejuvenating purposes.

 As the British promoted black tea cultivation in India in the 19th century, the consumption of black tea in India rose.

To make tea affordable for everyday workers, vendors started adding milk, sugar, and spices, both as a means to stretch the tea leaves further and to appeal to Indian palates. 

This was a significant step in the evolution of modern masala chai.

Over time, chai has become increasingly popular worldwide, and many coffee shops in the West offer the “chai latte,” which is inspired by the traditional masala chai but rarely resembles the conventional preparation.

What does chai taste like?

Overall, masala chai tastes warm, spicy, sweet, and creamy all at once. 

Looking for chai recipes?

Check out this recipe to make your own!

Its multi-layered flavor profile is one of the reasons it’s so beloved, offering comfort and invigoration in a single cup.

Here’s a breakdown of the chai flavor profile:

Spices

The spices in masala chai make it not only warming but famously aromatic as well.

  • Cardamom pods: Sweet and aromatic with slight citrus notes
  • Cinnamon stick: Warm and sweet with a woody aroma
  • Cloves: Pungent and slightly bitter with a warm sensation
  • Fresh ginger root: Spicy with a zesty freshness
  • Black Peppercorns: Sharp, mildly hot, and pungent
  • Star Anise (sometimes used): Sweet and licorice-like
  • Nutmeg (sometimes used): Warm and nutty with a sweet undertone
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Black Tea

The black tea base provides a robust, slightly astringent, and earthy backdrop to the spices. 

It anchors the chai and offers a depth of flavor.

There are variations of chai tea that use green tea leaves.

Green tea is made from relatively unprocessed tea leaves that have undergone minimal oxidation.

Typically, chai is made from the more fermented and oxidized black tea leaves

There is caffeine in chai tea since it is a black tea.

The exact caffeine levels found in chai can vary from blend to blend.

It is safe to assume that chai tea contains about half as much caffeine as a cup of coffee.

Milk

The milk gives the chai a creamy texture and smoothness, which complements and mellows the spices’ potency. 

Cow’s milk particularly works well with any blend of spices found in chai.

If you like milky tea, you can use other types of milk, but it might alter the flavor slightly.

It also contributes a subtle sweetness to the overall flavor.

Sweeteners

Unrefined cane sugar, jaggery, or honey can be added to masala chai, giving it an additional layer of sweetness that accentuates the spices. 

Some like their chai very sweet, while others prefer it more subdued.

Is chai good for you?

Chai contains various ingredients that have been associated with several health benefits. 

However, like all foods and beverages, its health impact depends on specific ingredients, preparation, and consumption patterns. 

Nevertheless, the potential benefits are many, and I’ve outlined some of the more significant ones below. 

Essentially, it breaks down to antioxidants, anti-inflammatory properties, blood sugar control, and digestive aids.

Antioxidants

Black tea leaves, the primary ingredient in chai, is rich in antioxidants, especially polyphenols like theaflavins and thearubigins. 

These compounds can help neutralize free radicals in the body, potentially reducing oxidative stress.

If you are not a fan of drinking chai, a black tea blend will have these benefits.

Anti-inflammatory Properties

Many of the spices used, such as ginger and cinnamon, have anti-inflammatory effects, potentially supporting overall health.

So, spiced chai tastes wonderful and can be good for you!

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Blood Sugar Control

Some spices, especially cinnamon, have been studied for their potential role in blood sugar regulation. 

However, adding a lot of sugar to the chai tea can offset this benefit.

Digestive Aid

Ginger and cardamom pods, common chai ingredients, are known for their digestive benefits. 

They can help ease nausea, bloating, and indigestion.

In summary, masala chai can offer numerous health benefits when consumed in moderation and prepared thoughtfully. 

However, as with all foods and drinks, it’s essential to be mindful of the ingredients and potential concerns based on individual health needs. 

Chai tea is more than just a drink made from tea bags

According to legend, the origin of chai dates back over 5,000 years.

An Indian king ordered a healing spiced beverage be created for Ayurveda, a traditional medicinal practice in which they used herbs and spices for healing.

Spiced chai was born, but the chai blend varied from region to region.

The ginger’s heat, coupled with black pepper, was believed to stimulate digestion.

While the clove’s antiseptic properties were thought to help relieve pain.

Cardamom elevated the mood, and cinnamon supported circulation and respiratory function.

From its humble beginnings in the Indian subcontinent to its ubiquitous presence in coffee shops worldwide, chai represents more than just a drink. 

You can grab a friend and go on a chai date!

It’s a ritual, a moment of pause, a slice of tradition poured into a cup. 

As it continues its global journey, evolving and adapting, one thing remains unchanged: its power to connect us over shared stories and warm conversations. 

As you take your next (or maybe first) sip, let its rich aroma and intricate spices inspire more than just a fleeting moment of pleasure. 

Pour a cup, and if you are feeling extra, garnish it with cinnamon sticks and a star anise.

Dive deeper into the popular tea’s history, experiment with its many variations, and share its magic with others. 

Have you ever tried authentic masala chai?

Have you found your perfect chai blend yet (I love mine with cinnamon sticks)? 

Do you prefer your chai latte warm or cold?

As it gets closer to fall, many chai lovers will switch from their iced chai latte to hot chai.

Let us know in the comment section!

You can also share your favorite recipes with us.

Grab a cup of chai tea (but remember, in India, it is just chai) and click the share button.

Lia works as a meditation teacher, mentor, and spiritual guide for anyone seeking lasting happiness and fulfillment. After earning a bachelor's degree in health sciences from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, she spent 17 years as an entrepreneur in the food service industry. It was from fulfilling leadership and management duties in this industry that Lia became interested in what makes and keeps people happy. In her quest to uncover the golden rules of lasting happiness, she traveled to India and studied meditation at Ekam-Oneness, A World Center For Enlightenment, and then became a Certified Meditation Instructor with Chopra Global in 2020. Today, Lia combines her knowledge of science and spirit in classes and workshops on meditation and science-based spirituality practices. She writes to share information and insights about meditation, happiness, personal growth, healing, and self-discovery. Lia lives with her family in Montana, where she enjoys hiking, snowboarding, adventuring, and reveling in the beauty of the natural world.
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