The widely loved Indian beverage “Masala chai,” Hindi for “spiced tea,” (yes, you’ve been saying “tea tea”) is a warming milk tea infused with a blend of aromatic spices. Originally used as an Ayurvedic medicine, the spices were combined for their individual health benefits to treat a number of complaints and ailments. However, the modern-day “chai latte,” is a comparatively new concept, and can be traced back to British colonialism in India in the early 1800s.
A brief history of Masala Chai
China was the leading tea importer in Europe at this time, so when the British discovered Assam tea saplings in northeast India, they took this as an opportunity to challenge China’s monopoly over the market.
The British East India Company began cultivating tea in the early 1800s to sell commercially, but tea was expensive and not widely received. This sparked some rather intense propaganda and marketing efforts, which also involved instruction on how to make a cup of tea with milk and sugar.
Gradually, inspired by Ayurvedic practices and to make the beverage more affordable, Chaiwalas (tea vendors) began to deviate from these instructions by adding spices and being more liberal with their addition of milk.
The evolution of making chai
In Ayurvedic practices, the brewing method could vary depending on what medicinal purpose it served. Common base ingredients for chai include cardamom, black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and ginger – this is by no means an exhaustive list. The spices would be steeped in hot water to exploit their health benefits, and eventually buttermilk was added for its digestive properties.
Fast forward to the late 1800s when Chaiwalas got creative with their brief from The British East India Company by adding extra milk and spices to their loose leaf brew. This enabled them to lower costs, as tea was still very expensive and mostly available only to the elite, and the addition of spices meant that flavour needn’t be sacrificed.
In the mid-twentieth century, the mechanisation of tea production continued to make tea more affordable. The CTC (crush, tear, curl) method is still a popular process today, and results in tea granules or pellets. Its bold, tannic flavour harmonises with the spices, sweetness and creamy body.
This is how we do it
Another common way to make Chai today is in the form of a syrup, which is what we do at 19grams. We have a carefully crafted mixture of spices and black tea, which is steamed with (alternative/)milk at the hands of a skilled barista and topped with a generous sprinkle of cinnamon.
Where to buy?
There are plenty of recipes out there for making your own, but here are a few good options to get you started: