The Beverage That's Delicious, Exotic, and Good for You Too
There are few things better than a perfect cup of tea, especially when it's jam-packed with a delicious taste and benefits like in a chai. But have you ever really given much thought to "what is chai?"
Chai is an ancient Indian drink that's been around forever, and while it's crazy popular in India, it's growing in popularity in the U.S. too. Most local coffee shops and even big chains like Starbucks have a chai on their menu.
So what is chai? And why is it so popular?
Whether you're an avid chai drinker or you've never had a single cup, we've got what you need to know to get the most out of your chai, one cup at a time.
What Is Chai?
Whether you're a long-time fan of the delicious and creamy taste of chai, or you've just started sipping, you might have wondered “what is chai?”
Simply put, chai, or more accurately, masala chai, is a mixed beverage of black tea, a blend of aromatic spices, some sweetness from sugar or honey, and either water or milk.
But when pondering about "what is chai?" there's so much more to it than a tasty drink. After all, how many things really taste amazing and are also great for you?
The Rich History of Chai
To really understand the answer to "what is chai?" you have to start with its history. While chai is growing in popularity and can be found all over from one-off coffee shops to your local Starbucks, the beverage has an ancient story that's pretty interesting.
As with many ancient things, the 5,000 to 9,000-year-old history behind chai has some mystery to it, and the stories vary based on who you ask. Some folklore says chai came into existence in a royal court, either Indian or Thai when the king created it for an energizing and healing Ayurvedic drink.
Believe it or not, chai didn't instantly become a hit, and it didn't grow in popularity even in India until British influence came into play in the 1800s, when they started establishing tea plantations in India to break free of tea dependence on China. (Yes, some people take tea very seriously).
Since black tea was mostly an export, it was too expensive for the general Indian population and didn't catch on, at least not until the British wanted it to.
After having enough tea supplies for themselves, the British wanted to expand their market by promoting tea consumption in India. So through tactics like mandatory tea breaks at work, the British East India Company began increasing the consumption of black tea in India.
Since the black tea was expensive, Indians cut it with lots of spices, milk, and sugar to save on costs while still providing a delicious beverage, and this was the beginning of the rise of one of the most popular beverage in India, the masala chai.
Soon this aromatic and richly flavorful beverage was found all over the streets, in homes, and as the centerpiece of conversations in India.
In the 1960s a CTC (crush, tear, curl) method was introduced making tea production less expensive and more efficient, and with black tea costs going down, chai became a staple in India.
Wondering how a tea that was created to cut costs thousands of years ago is all the rage in the western world today? Don't worry it's coming up soon.
What You're Really Asking for When You Order a Chai Tea
You can't ask "what is chai?" without covering what the name means. In the western world, chai means the milky tea beverage with spices and sugar that we've been talking about, but in many parts of the world including India, chai just means tea.
There are a few ways to order a chai in the U.S, like chai, chai latte, and chai tea. Knowing a little more about the origin of the word chai brings a bit of silliness to ordering a chai tea as it's essentially asking for a “tea tea.”
But whatever you want to call it, what really matters when it comes to "what is chai?" is what's inside.
It's What's Inside That Matters
A big part of the answer to "what is chai?", is what's inside that makes this drink so tasty, healthy, and popular. We mentioned that chai is a mix of black tea, spices, milk, and a sweetener, and the real magic lies in those spices.
While recipes might vary here and there, generally, chai combines black tea, sugar, and milk with ginger, green cardamom, cinnamon, fennel seeds, peppercorn, nutmeg, and cloves. If you don't know much about any of those spices, don't worry, you will soon.
Tantalize Your Tastebuds
Besides the many benefits of chai, that we'll get into later, chai's popularity is in large part because of its unique and appealing flavor. If it wasn't for the flavor that so many just can't get enough of, you wouldn't be here wondering about "what is chai?"
For an unparalleled taste, the ginger and pepper come together to give chai a spicy kick, and the cinnamon and clove provide an earthy tone. To balance everything out, a sweetener is added to create a sweet and spicy flavor that's also creamy.
As chai has evolved in the western world, there have been many innovations made to produce the most delicious and nutritious chai. For a personal touch and added health benefits, many enjoy this beverage with nut milk and use honey as a sweetener instead of sugar.
The Amazing Health Benefits of Chai
If you're wondering about "what is chai?" then you might be curious to see if there's more reason to drink chai than just the taste and there is! There are so many benefits of drinking chai, but before we get into them, let's look at the benefits of the main ingredients.
Cha Cha Chai Into Some Benefits
All the ingredients in chai come together to create a drink that's not only delicious and aromatic but packed with some great health benefits. To really understand all about "what is chai?" read on for the surprising benefits of chai that make it a treat you can feel good about.
Ready for Some Chai?
What's the point in knowing the answer to "what is chai?" if you don't know how to make one? Not much in our opinion!
Now that we've covered a lot about “what is chai?”, let's cover how to make it so you can enjoy the benefits. The three best ways to make your own chai are by either making it all from scratch to drink right away, making chai concentrate from scratch or using a pre-made mix.
Starting From Scratch (for a Cup)
If you're wondering about "what is chai" you might think it's a tough beverage to make, but making chai from scratch isn't a complicated process; it's just time-consuming. But if that's how you like to do things, we've got some instructions to help make it easier.
To make a simple chai from scratch for four cups, you'll need the following ingredients:
- 8 cardamon seeds
- 8 cloves
- 4 black peppercorns
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 1 1-inch piece of ginger
- 2 cups milk of preference
- 4 bags black tea (or about 4 tablespoons loose leaf)
- 8 teaspoons sugar or honey to taste
- Crush up the cardamon, cloves, and peppercorn (you can put them in a zip-lock bag before crushing for a mess-free solution)
- Slice up ginger
- Put crushed spices, cinnamon sticks, ginger, milk, and 2 cups water in a saucepan and bring to boil
- Remove from heat and add the black tea and allow mixture to sit for 10 minutes
- Add sugar or honey to taste
If finding and using all these ingredients every time you feel like having a cup of chai sounds like way too much of a process (we feel you), then don't worry we have the perfect solution, but first let's focus on chai concentrate.
Starting From Scratch (for a concentrate)
No article on "what is chai" would be complete without mentioning concentrates. If you want to have enough chai prepared to use quickly whenever you're in the mood for a cup, making a chai concentrate can do the trick.
To make 16 ounces of this chai concentrate, you'll need:
- 14 green cardamom pods (crushed)
- 12 whole black peppercorns
- 12 whole cloves
- 3 tablespoons chopped ginger
- 4 cinnamon sticks
- 3-star anise
- ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- ½ cup honey or brown sugar (adjust to taste)
- ½ teaspoon fennel seed
- 6 cups of water
- 8 black tea bags
- Bring all ingredients except for black tea to a boil in a pot
- Reduce the heat to medium and-low, cover the pot, and let the mixture simmer
- After 15 minutes, remove the pot from the heat, add the black tea, and let steep for about 5 minutes
- Pour the mixture through a mesh strainer to separate liquid from remaining spice pieces
- Keep the liquid and throw out the spice pieces
Mix It Up
For the delicious taste of chai and all its benefits without the hassle, there's no better way to enjoy this beverage than with a premium pre-made mix.
Pre-made mixed chai comes in concentrate, powder, and tea bag forms and they include all the spices.
To get the best taste and most benefits from every cup of chai, like a pro on "what is chai," you want to choose a quality chai mix that's packed with all the right spices, and easy to use.
When you choose a great chai mix powder, all you have to do to make a perfect cup of chai is mix some powder into water or milk. And you can either drink your freshly brewed chai hot or reheat it for a cozy cup or add some iced to enjoy it chilled.
Keeping It Fresh
Too much exposure to sun and oxygen can seriously mess up your tea, taking it from fragrant and delicious, to lackluster and funky tasting, so it's essential to always keep your tea stored in an airtight container.
Heat and moisture can also mess with the purity and potency of your tea, so avoid overly hot and humid storage spots and keep your tea in a cool dark place for maximum flavor and potency.
And last but not least, remember to keep your tea away from smelly objects. This last tip might sound like weird advice, but if you store it near smelly things like pungent cheese, your tea may develop undesirable flavors.
Storing Your Chai Brews, Concentrates, and Powders
Okay so if you love all the benefits of chai, and you've found your perfect mix or recipe, let's move on to the next step in "what is chai?"; storage.
If you have a leftover cup or two of chai that's ready to drink, you can easily store them in the fridge for a few days, in an airtight container.
If you're choosing to make or buy chai concentrate, then you can also store it in the fridge in an airtight container, but with concentrates, you have up to a week for freshness.
For the best pre-made chai mixes, storage gets simpler, and your chai lasts longer. Depending on the mix you choose, chai powder can last from months to a year. Just check the expiration date on the package, and use before then.
You can keep your chai mix in the package it comes in, or for optimal storage transfer it to an airtight container.
Live It Up With Chai
So what is chai? As you can see, with its rich history and a long list of benefits, chai is so much more than just a delicious drink. From long-standing family traditions in India to the chai you make at home, there's nothing better than the perfect cup of tea.
From chai newbies to longtime fans, you now know the answer to "what is chai?" and some tips on the best ways to enjoy it, sending you well on your way to becoming a chai connoisseur.
Whether you're enjoying your chai as a tasty treat, a way to gather with friends and family, or as a pick me up when you lack energy, now you have a bunch more reasons to enjoy this delectable drink and all its benefits. Enjoy!