The Spicy History of Chai and How to Make It

By: Kate Morgan  | 
Masala chai, also known as milk tea, is a traditional indian drink made with black tea and spices, such as cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, cloves and peppercorn. mama_mia/Shutterstock

Chances are, if you're a tea drinker, you enjoy the occasional cup of warm, spiced chai. But it's much more than a simple tea blend. There's a story of colonization, rebellion and reinvention in every cup, and you may find there's a whole lot you don't know about this special tea.


You're Probably Saying It Wrong

First thing's first: It's not "chai tea." It's masala chai, or just chai.

"There are two etymological roots for the word for tea," says Ayan Sanyal, co-owner of the New York City based Kolkata Chai Co. "Tea originated in China, and they're both Chinese words: te and chá. Pretty much anywhere in the world, you can say tea, te, chá or chai and you'll be able to get a cup of tea."


In other words, when you say "chai tea," you're asking for a cup of "tea tea." What Americans think of as chai is actually, Sanyal says, more accurately called masala chai. "Masala just means spices," he says. "So, a masala chai is a spiced tea with milk."

Chai Began in India

Chai originates in India, where ancient royals drank a healing beverage made with spices and milk. Fast forward to the late 19th century, when the British tea industry planted tea plantations in India, then under colonial control. "They really wanted Indians to drink tea, but Indians weren't interested," says Sanyal. "The British created this huge marketing plan that put tea stalls in train stations, gave workers tea breaks, and basically put tea into people's lives in every single way possible."

But rapidly, Sanyal continues, Indian tea culture took on characteristics all its own. Spices were added and masala chai was created. "It was born on the streets from this colonial product that was imposed on them. It's kind of both a rebellion and also the first appropriation."


A street vendor in Haridwar, India makes a spicy pot of chai.
Wikimedia Commons (CC By-SA 4.0)

Health Benefits of Chai

The early name for masala chai was kadha, long considered a magical drink, used cure communicable illnesses like sore throat, cold, headache and fever.

Chai can provide a number of health benefits, depending on the spices used; it's a healthier choice than sugary drinks such as hot cocoa, and is very low in calories as well.


The black tea and cinnamon in chai may help prevent hypertension. Research indicates that people who drink several cups of black tea every day lower their blood pressure by several points. The cinnamon that is one of the main ingredients in chai has also been shown to lower blood pressure and, in people with diabetes, has been shown to help reduce the levels of total cholesterol, (especially LDL, or "bad," cholesterol) and triglycerides by up to 30 percent.

Ginger, one of the ingredients that gives chai its distinctive spiciness, has been used for thousands of years in both traditional and alternative medicine. It’s known to aid digestion, reduce nausea and help fight the flu and common cold.

But perhaps the most powerful health benefit of chai is found in its antioxident properties, which come from the polyphenols occurring in black tea and cardamom, both known to protect cells from the free radicals which can cause everything from cancer to increased signs of aging.


How Chai Went Mainstream

Today, chai is a popular menu option at major coffee chains, and a common flavoring for everything from candles to candy. But the taste that many associate with chai is a pretty major departure, Sanyal says, from its authentic recipe.

"The chai you're getting now in America was popularized by Starbucks in the early 1990s," he says. "That chai is a little bit more cinnamony and super, super sweet. And it's made from a syrupy kind of concentrate. People look at it as kind of like a spice drink, but there's so much more to it. It kind of got lost in translation, because everyone knows what chai is, but no one really knows what chai is."


Sanyal started his company with his brother to expose more people to the real flavor profile of chai – the one they could find on the streets of India. "We were just like, you know, we really have to do this, and do it for the culture."

How to Make Masala Chai

A classic masala chai recipe has three basic building blocks. "Masala, again, means spice," says Sanyal. "Chai means tea, and then we have our milk." The spice blend is what makes a cup of chai unique and special. It can vary by region, and even family to family. "Everyone has their own recipe," says Sanyal, "but it's usually a mix of cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and peppercorn. Some people put in mint, and people put in lemongrass. It's usually the sweeter spices used in South Asian cooking."

To brew chai, the first step is to simmer the spices in a saucepan with a cup or so of water. Then, once the flavors have blended and infused, add black tea and let it brew as you normally brew it. Experimentation is the key to learning how to create your own perfect spice mix and tea ratio. You can make it as strong and as spicy as you like it. After a few minutes of brewing, strain the spices and coarse tea out. Finally, add milk, as little or as much as you like, to make everything rich and creamy. You can use any type of milk or cream that you like, but whole cow's milk is best, as its high fat content balances well with the spice mix. Full cream or sweetened condensed milk also work well. While the flavors may be complex, the process is not. The best thing about chai, Sanyal says, is that anyone can make themselves a cup.


"Chai has been a bit shrouded in mystery," he says. "People have heard of the word but they don't know it's really easy to make at home. And actually, it's so delicious when you make it at home, because you can make it your own and develop your own relationship with it. It's something that's accessible to everyone."