Masala Chai: Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice
‘Masala Chai’ means ‘mixed spice tea’. It is a traditional Indian drink made by brewing black tea with various aromatic Indian spices and herbs including cardamom, cinnamon, ground ginger, cloves, and black peppercorns. The term ‘chai’ just means tea, though in Western culture ‘chai tea’ has become shorthand for Masala Chai blends. Chai Lattes are also popular and often made commercially with flavoured tea syrups rather than real tea.
The tea plant, Camellia sinensis, has grown wild in the Assam region of India for centuries, but historically tea was perceived as a medicinal plant rather than a social drink in Indian culture. In fact, some of the current Masala Chai blends derive from traditional Ayurvedic medical texts. It wasn’t until the British colonies introduced mass tea production to India (in an effort to compete with China) that tea drinking became popular, and even then, it was mostly among British visitors. The consumption of black tea in India by locals didn’t become popular until the early 20th Century, encouraged by the British owned Indian Tea Association, who nonetheless frowned on the addition of spices, and extra milk and sugar which typify Masala Chai.
Masala Chai is a very broad term covering a range of slightly different beverages. Different regions and even families have their own variety, but there are similarities. Black tea, usually a strong variant like Assam, is used as a base to counteract the spices, though Gunpowder Tea or even South African Rooibos also make good bases, for a less caffeinated version. The spice base of ground ginger and green cardamom pods is known as Karha, and other spices such as cinnamon sticks, cloves, black pepper, star anise, and nutmeg are sometimes added. Traditionally in India, water buffalo milk is added to the tea and variants of the drink in some neighbouring countries use Yak’s milk. Both these milks are heavier and sweeter than cow’s milk, so if using cow’s milk, the full fat version is recommended. Masala Chai is also traditionally sweetened, with sugar, syrup or honey, the sweetness is believed to enhance the flavour of the spices.
Masala Chai is a warming, energising drink with many health benefits due to the spices and roots such as cinnamon and ginger, which boost the immune system and help with digestion. The use of full fat milk and sweeteners, however, mean it’s not a drink for slimmers, though it can be drunk without milk or sugar for a low fat option.
Western Chai Tea
The sweet spiced beverage has become popular in Westernised countries in the past few decades, often served as a syrup-based Chai Latte in coffee houses (though a much sweeter, more artificial tasting drink than proper tea versions). Modern tea blenders have also discovered the great potential flavour varieties of Masala Chai, adding further ingredients like cocoa and chilli to create exciting versions.
How to Mix a Real Chai Latte
A Masala Chai Latte is a gorgeous warming, sweet drink when made with real tea. We recommend using a traditional Masala Chai blend, with steamed full fat milk and sweetened with honey. Brew around 35ml of tea (or about 1/3 of the cup size you will be drinking it from) for 2-3 minutes. Stir in the honey and then add warm steamed milk. If you don’t have a steamer at home, milk can be gently warmed on a hob, but make sure it doesn’t boil and keep stirring to avoid a skin developing. Ground cinnamon or nutmeg can also be sprinkled as a topping.
For a healthier version, find a Masala Chai with a Rooibos or Green Tea base, and mix with a milk alternative such as almond, cashew or oat milk.
Our Favourite Spiced Teas
Kudipuchi Masala Chai Tea: A full bodied traditional chai made with ginger, cardamom, coriander, cinnamon, cloves, and black pepper. Ideal for warming a winter evening.
Mocha Chai: With a lighter tasting Ceylon black tea and a varied blend of Indian spices, this chai has a distinct chocolate and cherry taste, enhancing the sweet complexity of the tea.
Jasmine Chai: An unusual variant, jasmine, rose petals and lavender, are blended with all the traditional spices to create a warm, summery version of Masala Chai.