The History of Masala Chai (a.k.a. "Chai Tea")

From Ayurvedic Ambrosia to Americanized Coffeehouse Treat

Elements of masara chai tea
Masala chai spices. Sakura Photography/Getty Images

The '"chai" you find in nearly any coffeehouse has a history that dates back thousands of years. Ancient "masala chai" ("spiced tea") is steeped in tales of royalty and herbal medicine and has evolved over the years to include countless variations and a worldwide fan base. This is masala chai's history, beginning where it originated the ancient kingdoms of South Asia and ending with how it permeated the corner coffee shops of America.

Early History

According to lore, masala chai’s history began thousands of years ago in an ancient royal court. Some legends say it was created 9000 years ago, while others say it was 5000 years ago. Some say the court was located in what is now India, while others attribute masala chai to Thai origins. Regardless, it is said that a king created it as a cleansing, vivifying Ayurvedic beverage.

Even early on, masala chai was made with a wide range of spices and prepared with many different methods. It was served hot or cold as a remedy for mild ailments. At this time, the spicy-sweet drink known as “masala chai” did not contain any tealeaves and was caffeine-free.

Black Tea’s Arrival

In 1835, the British set up tea plantations in Assam, India. The black teas produced there made their way into local masala chai recipes. This is the first appearance of masala chai as we know it, complete with spices, milk, sweetener and tea.

However, this mixture lacked mass appeal, as tea was primarily an export and was too expensive for most Indians.

Mass Popularity in India

In the early 1900s, when the British-owned Indian Tea Association began to promote Indian tea consumption within India. Because black tea was the most expensive ingredient, vendors used milk, sugar and spices to keep their brews flavorful while keeping costs down.

Masala chai's popularity spread.

Masala chai became even more popular in India in the 1960s, when a mechanized form of tea production called "CTC" made black tea affordable for the Indian masses. CTC (or "Crush, Tear, Curl") tea lacks the nuances that many crave in an unadorned cup of tea, but it does have a bold, tannic flavor that made it a tasty foil to masala chai’s sweet, creamy and spicy notes. For this reason, CTC masala chai remains a staple in many parts of India.

Regionally, street vendors and train vendors called chai wallahs ("tea persons", kind of like a barista of chai) serve masala chai to the public. Chai is also used to welcome guests into the home. In some areas, people drink an average of about four small cups of chai per day. A popular time for chai is an afternoon snack at around 4 o'clock in the afternoon. This snack may include savory treats like samosas, pakoras, farsan (Gujarati snacks) and nashta (savory breakfast foods that double as snack foods).

Worldwide Consumption

As the worldwide popularity of masala chai grew, so did the number of variations of it.

For example:

  • Indian masala chai is usually sweetened with a form of local, unrefined cane sugar called jaggery, but elsewhere it is sweetened with more widely available sweeteners. In the U.S., cane sugar and honey are popular sweeteners for masala chai.
  • In India and most of the rest of the world, masala chai is made with black tea. In Kashmir, gunpowder green tea is used instead of black tea. Many American tearooms use loose-leaf black tea instead of CTC. Some caffeine-free versions of chai contain rooibos instead of black tea.
  • The milk in Indian chai is usually whole milk. Worldwide, some people prefer skim milk, soymilk or other non-dairy options, and some American coffeehouses use vanilla ice cream to make frozen chai.
  • In India, masala chai is made from scratch with fresh ginger and just-ground spices. In the U.S., it is widely available as a syrup concentrate (common in coffeehouses) and as a tea 'blend' with dried spices, but it rarely made from scratch.

In America, the ingredients and preparation methods aren’t the only variations. The name "masala chai" shifted to "chai" or even "chai tea".'Since "masala chai" means "spiced tea", "chai" means, simply, "tea". Worse yet, "chai tea" means "tea tea". However, the spread to America isn’t completely bad – many teahouses are serving up very high quality, loose-leaf masala chai as consumer expectations of tea continue to rise.

In recent years, chai tea lattes and a masala-flavored drink called dirty chai have both become popular in many coffee shops in the West.