|Alternative names||Spiced tea|
|Place of origin||India|
|Region or state||Indian Subcontinent|
|Main ingredients||Black tea, milk, spices, sugar (optional)|
Masala chai (//; lit. 'mixed-spice tea') is a tea beverage made by boiling black tea in milk and water with a mixture of aromatic herbs and spices. Originating in India,  the beverage has gained worldwide popularity, becoming a feature in many coffee and tea houses. Although traditionally prepared as a decoction of green cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks, ground cloves, ground ginger, and black peppercorn together with black tea leaves, retail versions include tea bags for infusion, instant powdered mixtures, and concentrates.
The term "chai" originated from the Hindi word "chai", which was derived from the Chinese word for tea, cha (see: Etymology of tea). In English, this spiced tea is commonly referred to as masala chai, or simply chai, even though the term refers to tea in general in the original language. Numerous coffee houses use the term chai latte or chai tea latte for their version to indicate that it is made with steamed milk, much like that used to make a caffè latte, but mixed with a spiced tea concentrate instead of espresso. By 1994, the term had gained currency on the U.S. coffeehouse scene.
Traditional masala chai
Tea plants have grown wild in the Assam region since antiquity, but historically, Indians viewed tea as a herbal medicine rather than as a recreational beverage. Some of the chai masala spice mixtures, or karha and Kashayam (Kha-shā-yam) that are still in current use, are derived from ancient Ayurvedic texts.
In the 1830s, the British East India Company became concerned about the Chinese monopoly on tea, which constituted most of its trade and supported the enormous consumption of tea in Great Britain around one pound (by weight) per person per year. British colonists had recently noticed the existence of the Assamese tea plants, and began to cultivate tea plantations locally. In 1870, over 90% of the tea consumed in Great Britain was still of Chinese origin, but by 1900, this had dropped to 10%, largely replaced by tea grown in India (50%) and Ceylon (33%), present-day Sri Lanka.
However, consumption of black tea within India remained low until the promotional campaign by the Indian Tea Association in the early 20th century, which encouraged factories, mines, and textile mills to provide tea breaks for their workers. It also supported many independent chaiwalas throughout the growing railway system.
The official promotion of tea was as served in the Indian mode, with small added amounts of milk and sugar. The Indian Tea Association initially disapproved of independent vendors' tendency to add spices and greatly increase the proportions of milk and sugar, thus reducing their usage (and thus purchase) of tea leaves per liquid volume. However, masala chai in its present form has now firmly established itself as a popular beverage.
The recipe or preparation method for masala chai is not fixed, and many families have their own versions of the tea. Most masala chai contains caffeine, typically one-third that of coffee (if made with a black tea base). The tea leaves steep in the hot water long enough to extract intense flavour, ideally without releasing the bitter tannins. Because of the large range of possible variations, masala chai can be considered a class of tea rather than a specific kind. However, masala chai has five basic components which are almost always present: water, tea leaves, milk, sugar, a mixture of cardamom and black pepper, and ginger. The western adaption of chai, or chai latte, has a lighter and sweeter taste than the Indian version of a more herbal and spicier milk beverage.
The base tea is usually a strong black tea such as Assam, so the spices and sweeteners do not overpower it. Usually, a specific type of Assam is used called mamri. Mamri tea has been cured in a special way that creates granules as opposed to "leaf" tea. It is inexpensive and the tea most often used in India. However, a wide variety of teas is used to make chai. Most chai in India is brewed with strong black tea, but Kashmiri chai is brewed with gunpowder tea.
The traditional masala chai is a spiced beverage brewed with different proportions of warming spices. The spice mixture, called karha, uses a base of ground ginger and green cardamom pods. Other spices are usually added to this karha including one or more of cinnamon, star anise, fennel seeds, peppercorn, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom seeds, ginger root, honey, vanilla, and other spices. In the Western world, using allspice, to either replace or complement the cinnamon and clove, is also common.
Traditionally, cardamom and ginger are the dominant notes, supplemented by other spices such as cloves, or black pepper; the latter two add a heat to the flavour and the utilization of cloves is more typical and popular throughout India. The traditional composition of spices often differs by climate and region in Southern and Southwestern Asia.
For example, in Western India, cloves and black pepper are expressly avoided, and lemongrass is also often included. The Kashmiri version of chai is brewed with green tea instead of black tea and has a more subtle blend of flavourings: almonds, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and sometimes saffron. In Bhopal, typically, a pinch of salt is added.
Other possible ingredients include nutmeg, mace, black cardamom, chilli, coriander, rose flavouring (where rose petals are boiled along with the loose-leaf tea), or liquorice root. A small amount of cumin is also preferred by some people. A less common addition to the spice is lemon grass, giving the chai a unique, aromatic aroma and flavour.
Traditionally in India, water buffalo milk is used to make chai. masala chai is made by mixing one part milk with two to four parts water and heating the liquid to near boiling (or even full boiling). Some people like to use sweetened condensed milk in their masala chai to double as the sweetener. For those who prefer to drink chai without milk, the portion is replaced with water.
Plain white sugar, Demerara sugar, other brown sugars, palm or coconut sugars, syrup, or honey are used. Jaggery is also used as a sweetener, mostly in rural parts of India. While some prefer unsweetened chai, some sugar enhances the flavour of the spices.
Some recipes use up to three tablespoons of sugar in 3½ cups of chai. Sugar is typically added to suit the drinker.
The simplest traditional method of preparing masala chai is through decoction, by actively simmering or boiling a mixture of milk and water with loose-leaf tea, sweeteners, and whole spices. Indian markets all over the world sell various brands of chai masala, (Hindi चाय मसाला [chāy masālā], "tea spice") for this purpose, though many households or tea vendors, known in India as chai wallahs, blend their own. The solid tea and spice residues are strained off from masala chai before serving.
The method may vary according to taste or local custom; for example, some households may combine all of the ingredients at the start, bring the mixture to a boil, then immediately strain and serve; others may leave the mixture simmering for a longer time, or begin by bringing the tea leaves to a boil and only add the spices toward the end (or vice versa).
A common Maharashtrian practice for preparation of one cup of chai is to first combine one half cup of water with one-half cup of milk in a pot over heat. Sugar may be added at this point or after. Ginger is then grated into the mixture followed by adding a "tea masala". Although the ingredients may vary from region to region, "tea masala" typically consists of crushed ginger, crushed cardamom, lemon grass, cloves, and cinnamon. The mixture is brought to a boil and 1 teaspoon of loose black tea is added. The chai is immediately taken off the heat, covered, and allowed to sit for about 10 minutes to allow the black tea to infuse into the chai. The chai is then strained and served.
By applying principles of molecular gastronomy, the reaction between tea and milk protein which causes coagulation can be prevented by first brewing the tea alone in the portion of water for 30 to 60 seconds, then adding milk and other ingredients.
Consumption of tea in the Indian subcontinent
Masala tea is a very popular beverage in the Indian subcontinent (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka). Small, roadside businesses called chai walla, make and deliver tea to people's places of business in a chaidaan, a wooden or metal frame carrier for cups. In the metropolitan city of Mumbai, roadside tea stalls serve smaller cups of tea at a lower budget which is referred to as 'Cutting Chai', the term 'Cutting' referring to 'Cut' the full cup into two parts to reduce the cost of the cup of tea. Circa 2020, the cost of a 'cutting' cup of tea varies between ₹6 and ₹10 - a full cup costing ₹10 to ₹20.
Masala tea is a beverage that is consumed heavily across South Asian households. While most people like to consume it in the morning along with breakfast, it is also offered to any guests that visit.
With the demand increasing many startups in India have taken tea stalls as a good business opportunity. There are now numerous larger food chains serving "Masala Chai" along with light snacks and are flourishing within office and college campus premises
Consumption beyond the Indian subcontinent
As the popularity of masala chai has spread around the world, its nature has changed in various ways beyond the somewhat redundant terminology noted above.
Masala chai is popular in East Africa, particularly on the coast. It is also quite popular in the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia; but it's locally known as Karak Tea or Chai Karak شاي كرك.
Tea-based mixes and concentrates
Liquid "chai concentrates" have become very popular for their convenience, as these spiced, sweetened, tea-based syrups merely require dilution with milk, water, or both to create a flavourful hot or cold beverage. Most American coffeehouse chains use commercial liquid concentrates instead of brewing their own chai from scratch. Dry powdered or granular mixes similar to instant coffee are also commercially available. Chatillon Chai is a tea concentrate blend originating from the Basque region in the 18th century.
Both dry instant mixes and liquid concentrates can be replicated at home. A liquid concentrate can be made by brewing an unusually concentrated pot of highly spiced tea, so that the dilution of a small amount into a cup of hot water or a glass of cold milk results in roughly the same concentration of tea as in a normally proportioned brew; e.g., to make a syrup from which one ounce suffices to make one eight-ounce cup of normal chai when diluted, brew tea (and the proportional quantity of spices) at eight times normal concentration.
Similarly, unsweetened iced-tea powder can be tailored to individual taste with powdered spices, sugar, and (if desired for convenience and texture) dry nonfat milk and dry non-dairy creamer; the result can be mixed with hot water to produce a form of instant chai masala. This form of dry mix has certain disadvantages, however; the powdered spices may leave a grainy residue at the bottom of the cup, and it may dissolve poorly in cold water, especially in the presence of dry milk/creamer powders.
In Western cultures
Many Western supermarkets offer teabags of chai which contain an assortment of ground chai spices and require steeping in hot water.
Some American supermarkets also carry bottles of "chai spice" alongside their dried herbs and other spices. Unlike Indian spice mixtures, the American ones are generally made from powdered spices (cassia tends to be the dominant flavour) and sometimes sugar; this mixture can be added last minute to an already-brewed cup of tea as straining off the solids is not needed.
In the West, to better simulate water buffalo milk, one may try using dry or powdered milk; along with raw or turbinado sugar normally used in India. One East-West fusion chai adds a small pinch of dark cocoa powder, indigenous to the Central Americas, to create hot chai-co-latte.
As an alternative to the hot tea format, several types of cold "chai" beverages have become popular in the United States. These range in complexity from a simple spiced iced tea without milk to a slush of spiced tea, ice, and milk (or nondairy creamer) mixed in a blender and topped with whipped cream. It is essentially different from the original version of a hot beverage.
Some coffeehouses in the United States offer a version of masala chai augmented with espresso, but this beverage does not have any one universally recognized name. It was invented accidentally in Covent Garden, England, by a woman making a chai latte for an American in the late 1990s. She poured in a shot of espresso by mistake, and he decided to try it. The American thought it delicious and for years he ordered it wherever he traveled. Depending on the establishment, it is now called a "java chai," "red eye chai," "turbocharger," "chai charger," "tough guy chai," the American's preferred "dirty chai," among others. However, despite the common use in many localities to use the term "latte" as an abbreviation of "caffe latte" ("cafe latte"), the term "chai latte" does not generally imply the presence of coffee in the beverage; see the discussion of the terminology above (literally, latte is Italian for "milk").
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