Masala Chai in India: A Nation Running on Tea

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Masala Chai

It’s been just over a month since we left India. There are some things we were glad to leave behind, but other things that we’re already missing. Of course we made some amazing friends but I also wanted to write a bit about the absolute institution of Masala Chai. It’s the Indian equivalent of what a good English Breakfast brew is for the Brits.

So yes I am going to write an entire blog post on a type of tea, after all it is actually National Tea Day. It feels like the nation as a whole runs on this sweet, spicy, milky tea and after a few weeks we were converts. After all we visited some tea plantations in Kerala, why not try the finished product how the Indians drink it?

munnar tea fields

What is Masala Chai?

Essentially chai is made up of tea, spices, milk and sweetener. There is no set recipe for Masala Chai, every family and community will brew it slightly differently.

First up you use a strong black tea to make sure that the spices and sweetener don’t overpower the flavour. The spice mixture has a base of ginger and green cardamom pods but can use a huge variety of spices. Traditionally in India water-buffalo milk is used but outside whole fat cows milk can be a good substitute. Finally sweetener is added, traditional sugar or sometimes jaggery.

masala chai shop an important part of indian culture

Origin of Masala Chai

Indians never used to be into tea as a beverage. Rather they saw it as a plant with medicinal properties. After the British colonists discovered tea in India and started manufacturing it to be exported back to the UK, to avoid their reliance on chinese tea, there was a movement to ensure all workers were allowed tea breaks.
Initially it was promoted ‘English style’ with a small amount of milk and sugar, but the Indians adapted it with spices and more milk using less tea leaves. The Indian Tea Association disaproved of this but now Chai is a classic Indian beverage.

Where is it served?

Everywhere. You can’t get away from it. But why would you want to? On every train in Rajasthan there were chai wallahs chanting “Chai, chai, chai” up and down the train selling little cups of masala chai for 20 rupees. It was the perfect way to get a little boost on a tiring journey and it’s also a way to get talking to people.

One of the best places to get a good authentic cup of masala chai are the chai wallah shops. Often they just look like tiny sheds at the side of the road, but you’ll be able to spot them by the packets of chewing tobacco and sweets and of course people sat outside on benches sipping on chai.

Inside the shop you’ll be able to watch the chai wallah make the tea. If they know what they’re doing they’ll pour it from one pot to another to make sure that the milk gets frothy!

Chai is also served at the home. If you’re ever lucky enough to experience Indian hospitality there isn’t a shadow of a doubt you will be offered a cup of masala chai. It’s a huge part of people’s lives and despite the process of making it being quite long compared to just dropping a tea bag into a cup of boiling water it’s the care taken that makes it feel so special.

What is it served in?Cup of masala chai

Now you might not be asking that question but you should be! It’s usually served in tiny little paper cups, just a bit bigger than a shot glass but the real traditional tea houses serve it in little clay pots. I absolutely fell in love with this. Although the locals just throw the clay cups on the ground after they’ve finished I collected mine. I even made the effort to send them home so I can use them as little sapling pots. It might not be the souvenir that I was looking for but the fact that it came from India, made by someone here, sat in the tea shack and then I drank masala chai from it. It just feels special. It’s a souvenir that has more to it than the mass produced elephant pants available in every tourist shop.

Try it at home

Chai might seem daunting because it uses so many ingredients and spices. It can be hard to know what quantities to use. If you’re not heading to India any time soon and won’t have a chance to try the real thing you can still find plenty of step by step recipes online. A steaming sweet cup of masala chai is a perfect way to relax and experience some Indian culture.

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Masala chai is the beverage that keeps India going. But what is it all about?

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4 Comments

  1. April 23, 2017 / 11:06 am

    Masala Chai is my one and only love of the hot drinks world. When I’m at home I work in an Indian in Cardiff and more often than not turn up an hour early JUST to make it in time for the authentic chai they make on the stove haha.

    • Sarah
      April 23, 2017 / 3:07 pm

      It’s just such a beautiful thing! I’m moving to Cardiff in August! I must come and try this chai!!!

      • April 27, 2017 / 9:58 pm

        No way?! Really? Seriously?! I’m moving to Cardiff next month (hopefully, fingers crossed if I find an affordable place which has a boiler system that doesn’t predate the dinosaurs) – we should meet up to drink the aforementioned chai when you’re back!

        • Sarah
          April 28, 2017 / 2:07 am

          Yes! I’m meant to be moving in with my sister but their new house is nowhere near ready to live in so we’ll see what happens! Good luck! I’d love to meet up for a chai 😁

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