The Ladies' Tea Guild

Sunday, October 3, 2010

It's time for some chai!

Masala chai in India.  Wikimedia Commons.
Chai has become a very popular beverage in the San Jose area.  Local Indian restaurants serve it, as do Starbuck's and Peet's Coffee & Tea and most other local coffee shops.  You can also buy an "instant" powdered chai, and liquid chai concentrate at some local grocery stores!  But, some may ask, what is chai?  Americans know it as a sweet, spicy, creamy hot drink, but in India, its place of origin, chai means something else.

While China is known as the “birthplace of tea,” today other nations are major producers and consumers of the beverage. India has been a major tea growing region since the mid-19th century when, as part of the British Empire, India's indigenous tea plants were cultivated to provide tea for English consumption. Tea drinking within India became widespread during the early 20th century, and the tea itself -- without spices or milk -- is still known as chai there.

Other Asian tea customs combined to influence the creation of what we know as chai. Tea was spread throughout Asia by the Mongols, unified under Genghis Khan in the 13th century. The Tibetans, unlike most other Asian people groups, preferred black tea  to green tea, and they also drank it with milk or yak butter. This almost certainly influenced the British and Indian preference for milk in their tea, and caused Indian tea to be processed and blended specifically to taste best with milk. The habit of drinking tea with sugar came from the customs of Russia and the Middle East, brought to India through trade.

In India, the British method of preparing tea was altered to suit local tastes. Instead of infusing tea in an earthenware teapot, the tea leaves were added to a metal pot or kettle containing boiling milk and water. The tea was boiled with the milk and water, and sweetened to taste. When all these ideas were combined with the traditional Indian custom of using spices for medicinal drinks, the 21st century chai -- or, more accurately, masala chai -- came into existence.

Masala chai is prepared when spices such as cardamom, ginger, and cloves are added to the mixture of tea, milk, and sweetener. The combination and amount of spices, and the kind of sweetener (honey or sugar) is up to the taste of the person preparing the chai; it is sometimes said that “there are as many recipes for chai as there are households in India.” It is an everyday drink in many local Indian homes, and is commonly served at Indian restaurants.  It is delicious, and warming on a cool day!

Tea: East and West
"The History of Chai"
"Masala Chai"
"Chai" from the Merriam-Webster dictionary online

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Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,
Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round,
And, while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn
Throws up a steamy column, and the cups
That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each,
So let us welcome peaceful evening in.
-- William Cowper (1731-1800)
"The Winter Evening" (Book Four), _The Task_ (1784)