What is Chai, Anyway?
You already know that chai is delicious and intriguing. To help you learn more about what’s in your cup, we’ll walk you through the styles, ingredients, and origins of India’s favorite beverage … which is sure to become your favorite, too!
There is no one “right” way to make a good cup of chai. Methods vary according not only to region, but by personal preferences. Chai always includes some combination of tea, spices, and either water or milk. You might find the following variations:
- Tea bags vs. loose-leaf tea
- Cardamom-dominant spice blend (southern India) vs. Cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, and black pepper (northern India)
- Canned condensed milk vs. cow or buffalo milk
- Served in an unfired clay bowl (kulhad), glass cutting cups, or everyday teacups
- Served steaming hot or iced cold
Around the world, most tea is made from the Camellia sinensis plant, an evergreen shrub. When harvested in certain ways, it can produce either white, green, oolong, or black tea. Two major varieties exist: Camellia sinensis var. sinensis originated in China, while Camellia sinensis var. assamica is from the Assam region of northern India.
Primary Growing Regions
- Assam | Rich, hearty, blender tea with a lot of body
- Darjeeling | Astringent, delicate, complex
higher elevation (6,500 feet), typically large estates
- Dooars | Bright, smooth, and full-bodied tea
foothills region (300 to 5,740 ft) with heavy rainfall
- Nilgiri | Fragrant, with notes of tea, eucalyptus, and blue gum
lower elevation, light rainfall, small farms
While tea has a centuries-old tradition in China, it was not widely consumed as a beverage in India until the early 1800s. In a relatively short span of time, however, India has become the largest producer of tea in the world.
British colonists, arriving in the 1820s, are often credited with popularizing tea-drinking in India. In fact, they first learned of its potential from indigenous peoples. With populations across India, Malaysia, and China, the Singpho tribe has been drinking tea medicinally since the 12th century. Harvesting from trees in the wild, the Singpho ride atop elephants so that they can reach the tea leaves. In the Singpho tradition, leaves are packed into bamboo stalks, smoked over an open fire, and aged for several years before drinking.
When British settlers arrived, they bought large tracts of land, established plantings, and enslaved locals to work the land. Adamant to bring tea culture to India, they even formed a Tea Committee in 1834 to bring tea to the masses. Their efforts worked, although perhaps not quite in the way they envisioned.
Chai emerged as a wildly popular beverage that’s uniquely Indian, carrying the spirit of a diverse and spirited nation. Following India’s declaration of independence from the United Kingdom in 1947, some British-owned tea estates were transferred to local hands, although others remained colonized. Today’s Indian tea industry is a pride of the nation that not only supports its thriving democracy, but symbolizes its warmth.