The Story of Masala Chai

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Masala Chai, or “spiced tea” has been a staple within Indian culture for a very long time and more recently has gained in popularity all across the globe. But what is it exactly?

What is it?
Generally speaking  it is a black tea mixed with milk (ideally from a water buffalo) and water, to which a mixture of herbs and spices are added for flavor. In that sense, there is not just one recipe for making the spice mixture (karha). Although cardamom pods and ground ginger are usually the base, many families in India add a host of other spices to the brew to give the chai their own flair. The more common spices used are cinnamon, peppercorn, nutmeg and vanilla, and for sweeteners the various types of sugar, syrup or honey is most common

History and Myth
As is often the case with tea, the origin of Masala chai is shrouded in mystery and myth, but a few stories have endured over time. One story of the origins of tea is that a Buddhist monk, while making his way to China, witnessed a local ritual in which wild tea leaves were chewed on and felt rejuvenated after trying it for himself. Another is that emperor Harshavarhana (590-647 CE) created the beverage in an effort to remain alert for long court hours. Finally, there is the tale that a concoction of a “Sanjeevani” plant mentioned in the Ramayana, one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India, heals a badly injured mythical character Lakshmana.

Interestingly though, the usage of black tea for Masala chai only became popular after it was introduced by the British in 1835 and subsequently promoted by the Indian Tea Association (ITA). Tea was traditionally considered more of a herbal medicine up until this point before the ITA suggested it’s consumption for the working class during breaks in texture mills, mines and the like. Similarly, the addition of milk did not become common until almost a century later, when tea vendors began to brew leftover leaves with milk, spices and sweeteners, as an economical alternative for a well-flavored drink. This is what we consider to be the first version of Masala chai as we know it to this day.

As mentioned earlier, the ways in which Masala chai is prepared can vary quite a bit depending on tastes. While some prefer to boil a mixture of milk and water, with loose tea leaves, sweeteners and all the spices right from the start, others prefer to let the mixture simmer for a while before serving it, or might only add the spices before or after the tea has been boiled. As Masala Chai has become more popular worldwide liquid concentrates and dry-powder mixes have also become available. Particularly in the west, where teabags are often the norm, assorted mixtures of chai are sold.

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