Chai is not just a beverage; it is the history, culture, and diversity of India poured in just one cup. India is the home to the most chai consumers and so the collective assumption has always remained that Indians were the ones to invent masala chai, but it might come as a shock that the credit of origination of milky masala tea actually goes to The British. Historically, tea was seen as the herbal medicine in India, and not as a recreational beverage that many of us are addicted to today (read How Brook Eddy is Making Millions Selling Chai to see how the beloved beverage is being sold in the US market).
Tea plants were native to East and South Asia, but the perfect blend of black tea, sugar, and milk was actually first introduced to Indians by British. India is known worldwide for its Darjeeling and Assam Tea today, but earlier Indians used to boil tea leaves along with other traditional herbs, shrubs, flowers and drink the outcome (Kaadha) as an Ayurvedic medicinal beverage.
In Britain, the natives had developed the habit of drinking ‘the expensive Chinese tea’, and it acquired the status of the most popular beverage of British within no time. However, soon Britain became concerned about the Chinese monopoly on tea and thus wanted independence from the heavily taxed Tea of China. Hence, The Britishers gave a thought to the commercialization of tea via East India Company. They established their own large-scale tea plantations in the north-east part of India noticing the existence of Assamese tea plants. By cultivation tea on a local level in India, British were successful in finding an alternative for their tea traders; that too at much lower cost than Chinese Tea. The data states that in 1870’s about 90% of the total tea consumed by Great Britain came from China, but it came down to just 10% by 1900’s as Indian Tea replaced the traditional tea.
However, Indians were not able to afford these expensive black tea leaves. And so, tea didn’t gain popularity in the Indian market in the beginning. It is believed that the British took full advantage of tea’s addictive properties and thus, seeing a new large-scale local market; started dispensing this beverage free of cost to the native Indians. Eventually, this blend of Indian Ayurvedic and British tea time methods gave birth to the beloved masala tea as we’ve come to know it.
The Indian factory workers were provided regular tea brakes by British where they were served black tea with sugar and milk for better taste and nourishment under the promotional campaign by the Indian Tea Association in the early 20th century. This British-owned association supported many independent chai vendors throughout the growing Railway System in India.
At first, these chai vendors used to make tea in the British style, with black tea and smaller quantities of milk and sugar. They noticed that tea leaves were the most expensive ingredient of this drink, making it impossible for everyone to purchase and drink chai. The vendors used their creativity and started adding spices and increased the proportion of sugar and milk to reduce the usage and purchase of tea leaves. This is how a cup of masala chai was made affordable to even economically weaker sections of society.
Gradually, chai became an integral part of Indian culture. Moreover, the ingredients found in the spices used as ‘masala’ in the tea are quite useful in treating the common cold, digestive issues, stomach ailments, flushing out toxins, flu, headaches and common maladies.
The most common spices used in chai are ginger root, cardamom, peppercorn, cinnamon, fennel seed, cloves, and nutmeg, though there are certainly regional variations and for how masala chai is created.
The consumption and success of tea was not an overnight phenomenon in India. Every community of India took its own time to adopt the foreign product; even Mahatma Gandhi advised Indians not to drink chai offered by British. However later, during the independence period, chai was considered in India as the domestic production.
Today, there are a myriad ways to make chai with different ratios of dried tea leaves, milk, sugar/jaggery, water, and spices. To learn more about regional variations, click and read An Exploration of India’s Regional Chai Preparations.