“Life is like a cup of chai. It’s all in how you make it.”
India is famous throughout the world for its omnipresent chai culture… that is to say, black tea boiled with milk, sugar, and spices (known as chai in Hindi) is the favoured beverage of the population, from north to south.
An Indian morning starts upon waking, with a cup of chai. After this proper launch to the day, the legendary habit of tea drinking continues until evening.
Outdoor chai stalls appear everywhere, tucked into tiny spaces in open-air markets, on busy intersections, in train stations and backstreet alleys. Chai is always available. The chai walla (India’s street barista) busily works at pounding spices, boiling tea and serving it in tiny cups or glasses to eager patrons.
Each chai walla, with his own unique take on the traditional recipe, gathers loyal customers who regularly come back for more. A cup of masala chai costs only a few pennies in India, and everyone is happy to perch on wood benches or stand around the chai stall, sipping their cuppa.
Sharing a chai is requisite for fueling conversation, uplifting moods or calming nerves. Every hot topic of the day, whether sports, politics, or family related, is better discussed over a cup of tea. Business deals are clinched and marriage arrangements sealed, as the parties bond in a few moments of chai-filled bliss.
And the best thing about drinking chai in India? Not only is the tea locally grown, but the milk is usually fresh from a village or local gosala (cow farm). If you want to make your own chai, mini-markets everywhere sell milk by the gram or liter, as needed. So, a fresh pot of masala chai is only moments away, whether you live in a city center or deep within a sprawling residential colony.
The question that begs to be asked is… how did India become such a chai culture?
With a long history of Ayurveda, or natural herbal medicine, India has always favoured herbal tea drinking.
Restorative plants such as mint, liquorice and tulsi (holy basil) have existed for thousands of years in India. These herbal teas were popular for treating mild to serious maladies, often with the inclusion of black tea leaves.
To mask the bitter flavour of medicinal herbs, milk was added, along with sweet digestive spices. Today, Ayurvedic herbal teas are becoming more popular, as modern Indian society looks back to its own history for cures to current ailments.
Black tea has numerous health benefits, a few of which are: improving heart health, decreasing the risk of certain cancers, improving focus, regulating blood sugar levels and reducing tooth decay.
The spices added to make masala chai (aside from adding great depth and flavor to a cup of tea) also have excellent medicinal values, such as:
Dried ginger is stimulating, fuels digestion and clears up congestion.
Fresh ginger reduces nausea, relieves pain and improves blood circulation.
Cloves also stimulate digestion, boost immunity and decrease inflammation.
Nutmeg is excellent for relieving headaches and inflammation, and to counteract anxiety.
Black pepper is healing, cleansing and an antioxidant, while functioning as a carrier for herb and nutrient absorption throughout the body.
Cinnamon is antibacterial, treats colds and cough, and is a powerful digestive aid.
Cardamom is, again, great for digestion, relieves intestinal discomfort, and is soothing, calming and balancing.
Although tea existed in northern India as early as 760 BC, tea production came along much later.
Dutch explorers chronicled the use of herbal teas and black tea in the early 1600s, particularly in the area of Upper Assam in northern India. Indigenous people of Assam even cooked black tea leaves with garlic and regularly enjoyed them as a nutritious vegetable dish.
Widespread cultivation of tea was introduced into India by the British in the 1700s. Before this time, Britain had relied on trade agreements with China for their tea needs.
As the political and commercial relationship between Britain and China deteriorated, British emissaries in India began worrying about their dependence on Chinese tea. This was no small issue, as China provided Britain with around 40 million pounds of tea per year and dropping their tea habit was not an option for the British!
The obvious solution was to begin local tea production in India. Embarking on this new venture, the British imported Chinese tea plants (Camellia sinensis var sinensis) for experimentation, but the first groupings of plants didn’t thrive in the Indian heat.
With the discovery of the heartier wild tea (Camellia sinensis var assamica) growing in Assam, the British aimed to control the production of tea in Assam for their own consumption, as well as for export to Britain.
Tea cultivation in India, as with most Western interventions into traditional cultures, was fraught with controversy. The local Assamese tea growers and labourers suffered exploitation over the nearly 150 years of the industry’s development.
Finally, after working its way through arduous trial and error with cultivation, plus heated conflicts with local planters and workers, the tea industry began to flourish in Assam. The first local tea exports to Britain came to pass in the late 1830s.
Meanwhile, a few original Chinese plants survived, eventually becoming the world-renowned Darjeeling tea, still grown exclusively in that area of India.
Although tea became a huge industry in India during this time period, the average Indian citizen was not part of the tea-drinking population. Only British colonials and upper-class Indians consumed Indian-grown tea at this time, with the rest going for export.
Fast-forward to the early 1900s, when an export ban amid increased production found India holding a surplus of tea. The price came down and Indians started drinking tea!
But… when the Indians drank tea, they didn’t steep the leaves in a pot and then add milk and sugar afterwards, as did the British. Instead, they boiled the tea in water with milk, sugar and local spices, making it truly India-unique.
Today, tea from Assam, with its unique malty flavour and tea from Darjeeling, with its delicate fruity and floral notes, are among the most prized varieties of tea across the earth.
The British tea industry may have been built on the backs of indentured regional labourers, but India has prevailed, and is now the beneficiary of a multi-billion dollar tea industry. Tea production in India today is regulated by the Indian government, under the Ministry of Commerce and Industry’s Tea Board.
The act of drinking daily tea in India was fueled by the ambitions of the British. But Indians have, through their own quirky brand of individualism, made chai drinking their own.
As far as statistics go, although China currently comes in first for tea production in the world (with India ranking second), when it comes to tea consumption, India places first!
An impressive 70% of the Indian population regularly drinks chai, because chai is cheap, abundantly available, and, of course, totally delicious. So much so, it is claimed by all as the national beverage.
If you’re in India and are invited to chai, please say yes! Otherwise, you’ll miss the opportunity to enjoy an important ritual of daily Indian life. And, if your chai happens to be served in a cup with a saucer in a remote village setting, you could be in for a surprise. Rural Indians often pour a bit of the steaming chai onto the saucer, swirl it for a few seconds and then sip it right off the plate!
This curious yet practical custom developed when the British introduced the cup and saucer into Indian society, but locals found the tea too hot to sip directly from the fine china cup. So, they cooled it down on the saucer. Not exactly what the British had in mind, but that’s yet another way that Indians own their chai culture!
As coffee and stylish Western-style coffee cafes make their way into modern India, sweet masala chai also shows up in these comfy sit-down spaces.
It appears on menus as traditional chai, and as trendy variations such as dirty chai latte (espresso with milk and chai) or iced chai (made with masala spiced tea powder). But don’t be mistaken – classic masala chai has ruled Indian culture for over 100 years – it’s not going anywhere!
Last Updated 5 August 2023