Over the past several weeks we have been participating in shows at Wintergreen Resort, south of Charlottesville, VA as well as the Purcellville Community Market in Purcellville, VA and without fail the Masala Chai has been one of the most consistent sellers even when we haven’t had samples for tasting. Yet so many buyers don’t really know much about the drink they love. So it was really just a matter of time before we blogged about Masala Chai specifically and chai generally.
The word chai itself is but one of many variations on the the word tea which includes tê, chá, and chai depending on culture and history. Masala, on the other hand, is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a varying blend of spices used in Indian cooking” (Merriam-Webster). Thus Masala Chai is nothing more than spiced tea. Of course, for those who have experienced Masala Chai know that there are a myriad different flavors. While it commonly includes ginger, cardamom, and cinnamon, there are many variations from there which can include star anise, fennel seeds, nutmeg, cloves, and more. For many, true Masala Chai also includes milk and a sweetner.
History of Masala Chai
As most are aware, Masala Chai has its roots in Indian Culture, though exactly when seems a bit of a mystery. One account has it attributed to an Indian king some 5,000 years ago (Kasam, 2004), while the commonly accepted source is the Hindu Aurveda tradition. Regardless, spiced tea was consumed in India long before the arrival of the British and well before it was brought to the United States and commercialized.
Masala Chai in India: Chai Wallah’s
Spiced tea is served throughout most of India. Tea sellers, or chai walla’s are found all over India and keep their chai simmering throughout the day. In fact, the chai wallahs’s serve as local gathering spots, akin to our water coolers, where people come together to meet, discuss, and debate a wide range of topics. Traditionally, the tea itself is served in clay cups. These cups are typically produced locally, unglazed, used only once, and smashed by the customer after use to degrade back into the dirt and mud from which they were made. Across India the clay pots come in a variety of shapes and sizes and even names. They are called bhaar in the West Bengal region, puruas in Banaras, and kullarhs in much of the rest of the country. Enjoyment of masala chai from these roadside vendors is typical and a much written about experience by many travelers to India.
Spiced Tea Variations
While Masala Chai is the best known spiced tea in the west it is hardly the only one. Kashmiri Chai, also known as Pink Tea, Salt Tea, Noon (meaning salt) Tea, and many other names, comes from the Kashmir region in northern Pakistan between India, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and China. Traditionally made with salt, though sugar can be substituted, this tea takes on a pink hue due to the addition of baking soda.
There are many different way one can make spiced tea. Starting with a basic Masala Chai or Kashmiri Tea you can experiment to find a taste profile that works for you. There are also a wide range of loose lease options available including things like our Pumpkin Spice Chai and even caffeine free options like our South African Chai so there is a spiced chai for many occasions.
High Chai, Nirali looks at the steeping of tea in the South Asian tradition, by, Roxanna Kasam, Nirali Magazine, November 1, 2004, http://niralimagazine.com/2004/11/high-chai/
Masala Definition, Mirriam-Webster Dictionary On-Line, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/masala