Chai is not simply tea

-By Binod Baral
Chiya, Chai, or simply CHA, with its delicious mixture of spices, is one of tea’s most popular blends and can likely be found at any tea or coffee shop. Native to South Asia, chai has varied recipes depending on the region, climate, and cultural preference.
Strong spices, such as cinnamon and cardamom, are often combined with the addition of milk and sugar to offset the spicy flavor. Although the flavors are reminiscent of the fall and winter seasons, the versatility it brings as a hot or iced beverage allows it to be enjoyed all year long.

This sweet, milky tea that we have grown to love has evolved over the years and is actually quite different from the original Indian chai recipe. The word “chai” is the Hindi word for “tea,” which is derived from “cha,” the Chinese word for tea. We call it Chiya in Nepal.

Chai can also be referred to as “masala chai” or “spiced chai” since “chai tea” translates to “tea tea.” The term for chai is a mixture of spices or “masala” steeped into a hot tea beverage.

The beginning of chai dates back more than 5,000 years ago in the Assam region of India. Legend says an Indian king combined a medley of warm spices and turned them into a drink for medicinal purposes. This new concoction was created to be used in “Ayurveda,” which was a health practice that specialized in the use of spices and herbs. Common chai ingredients, such as cardamom, black pepper, cinnamon, bay leaves, cloves, and ginger, were thought to promote digestion and relieve pain, among other benefits.

My mother’s favorite tea spice mix was ginger and cardamom; she used to collect it from the wild called Tej Patta (Bay Leaves). However, she used to make a winter tea masala mix where she included black peppers too.

Chai has increased in popularity recently and opened up many Chai with tail brands, such as hundreds of Chaiwallahs in London. The increasing popularity of chai and the emergence of various chai-focused brands and outlets in places like London reflect the cultural significance of this beverage. Chai has transcended its roots and become a beloved drink globally, offering a taste of tradition and a sense of community to people far from their homelands.

Moreover, these chai establishments contribute positively to the social and economic fabric of the community. They offer spaces where people from diverse backgrounds can gather, share stories, and build relationships, thereby promoting social cohesion. Additionally, from an economic standpoint, these businesses create job opportunities and contribute to the local economy.

The calming and communal nature of these spaces can indeed have a positive impact on individuals. Overall, the expansion of chai culture in the UK not only brings a taste of tradition but also serves as a bridge between cultures, fostering connections and providing a sanctuary for social interaction and mental well-being in the midst of hectic city life.

Actually, tea stalls, tea corners, or tea carts in Nepal and many other parts of Asia serve as more than just places to grab a quick beverage. They often function as social hubs where people gather to relax, catch up with friends and family, and engage in conversations. These places facilitate a sense of community, acting as meeting points for individuals to bond over a cup of tea and sometimes snacks or quick bites like bread, buns, various types of cooking, roti, sel roti, biscuits, and more.

The casual atmosphere of these tea stalls encourages people to take a break from their daily routines, fostering connections and creating a space for both social interactions and relaxation. It’s not uncommon to see individuals spending hours chatting, discussing various topics, or simply enjoying each other’s company while sipping tea and having a bite to eat. These spots often play a significant role in the cultural fabric of the community, providing a space for socializing and unwinding and the medicinal blend spread across different parts of India, with each region adding its own interpretation to the recipe. Chai, in its original form, was not technically a tea, as it did not contain tea leaves from the Camellia sinensis plant. The Camellia sinensis plant is what makes up black, green, and white tea. Black tea leaves, milk, and sugar became a popular addition in the mid-1800s when Camellia sinensis plants were discovered in India and harvested by the British. The British ruled India at the time and preferred their tea (specifically black tea) with milk and sugar. The two black teas most often found in chai are Assam and Darjeeling, both of which are native to the Indian subcontinent.

In the years since chai has expanded across numerous countries and continents. Now you can find chai recipes using various tea types, including green tea (Japan), yerba mate (South America), and red rooibos (South Africa). One of the most exciting aspects of chai is the versatility in the flavor it brings. With just a simple adjustment of ingredients, a cup of chai can become spicier, sweet, or even savory.

The caffeine content of chai also coincides with the type and amount of Camellia sinensis used for the base, with black tea having the most caffeine. As mentioned briefly before, chai has a plethora of health benefits. It is rich in antioxidants that can guard the body against free-radical damage, improves digestion, and balances hormone levels. The array of spices used has healing traits that fight against nausea and boost the immune system (ginger) and balance blood sugar (cinnamon). Cloves, the spice with the highest level of antioxidants, have antiviral and antibacterial properties and are being studied for cancer treatments. All of these powerhouse spices combined work synergistically to promote a healthier body. You could say that a chai blend is like the Avengers of tea!
In the bustling streets of South Asia, a beverage steeped in rich history and vibrant flavors has captured the hearts and palates of tea enthusiasts worldwide—Chai. Originating in India, this beloved concoction boasts a lineage that traces back more than 5,000 years to the lush lands of the Assam region.

Chai, derived from the Hindi word for “tea,” has transcended cultural boundaries and become an emblem of warmth, spice, and comfort. Initially crafted by an ingenious Indian king, this infusion of warm spices wasn’t just a delight for the senses; it was a medicinal elixir, curated for its therapeutic properties. Rooted in Ayurveda, an ancient health practice, the blend was a synergy of ingredients like cloves and ginger, celebrated for their digestive and pain-relieving attributes.

Surprisingly, the original form of chai didn’t include tea leaves from the Camellia sinensis plant, the standard bearer for black, green, and white teas. It was the British discovery and cultivation of these plants in 19th-century India that birthed the marriage of black tea, milk, and sugar into the aromatic spice blend. The British, ruling India at the time, introduced their penchant for black tea with milk and sugar, transforming chai into the iconic sweet, milky concoction known and adored today.

Chai’s evolution didn’t halt at its introduction to black tea; it’s a dynamic infusion that has traveled across continents, adopting various tea bases like green tea from Japan, yerba mate from South America, and red rooibos from South Africa. Each rendition offers a unique twist on the classic blend, showcasing the versatility and adaptability inherent in this centuries-old recipe.

What makes chai truly remarkable is its ability to cater to diverse tastes with a mere tweak of ingredients. Whether one craves a spicier, sweeter, or even savory sip, chai’s flexible nature accommodates all preferences. Furthermore, the caffeine content in chai corresponds to the type and amount of tea leaves used as a base, with black tea packing the most punch. In the hustle and bustle of urban life, having a place to relax, sip on a comforting beverage like chai, and engage in conversations can significantly alleviate stress and provide a sense of belonging.