Regardless what Starbucks, Oprah and even the trendy independent coffee shop around the corner may call it, never say "chai tea." That is the number one rule for drinking masala chai — a drink which represents a way of life in India. Shiv Puri, co-owner of New York City's Bombay Sandwich Co., says that over a third of his customers refer to the drink as "chai tea." But they shouldn't. Chai tea simply translates to "tea tea." It's like referring to kabocha as kabocha squash, or shortbread as shortbread cookies.
What most people consider "chai tea" is better known as masala chai ("masala" means spices). And while there is no standard recipe or preparation method for the drink, it typically involves brewing a strong loose black tea (usually from the tea growing Indian state of Assam) with warming spices like cardamom, ginger, and nutmeg. Other variations can include ingredients like cinnamon, saffron, rose, fennel, peppercorn, clove, and star anise. Notably, both the Chai Cart in San Francisco and popular cafe Dishoom in London say that they use black pepper in their tea as well.
Traditionally, the spices and loose tea are placed in a pot with a mixture of milk and water, which is brought to a full boil so that the flavors can meld. Puri emphasizes that "a proper cup of chai should have been boiled during the cooking process." The tea is then taken off the heat, strained, and the option of adding sugar comes into play. At Dishoom, the masala chai is made with half water and half milk, a spokesperson reveals.
However, there are a number of regional chai variations. Photojournalist Resham Gellatly and journalist Zack Marks spent months traveling and documenting the stories of India's numerous chai wallahs, or those who run the tea stands that are ubiquitous throughout the country and practically woven into the fabric of daily life. These low-tech stands — which usually feature a burner, a large pot, some cups, and a ladle — are where chai wallahs work their magic. With a minimal amount of equipment, they make hundreds, if not thousands of cups per day, majestically pouring boiling hot tea from impressive heights into small cups.
During their travels, the duo encountered chai wallahs making the drink with buffalo milk in Kolkata, but in a town in the Northern state of Rajasthan, the tea was made with camel's milk. In the state of Jammu and Kashmir, Gellatly and Marks found a chai wallah who served a bright pink tea that incorporated salt. (The tea got its color from the baking soda used to make the drink.) Others finish masala tea with a dollop of butter. And in the city of New Delhi, chai is often served topped with malai, or a thick cooked cream.
In Mumbai, the chai wallahs are known for selling cups of "cutting chai" — a smaller, cheaper portion of tea that comes in small handle-less glass cups. It's Puri's favorite and he notes that the real thrill is having to hold "a dangerously hot cup of chai just by using the rim." In other parts of the country chai is served in anything from small clay cups to disposable mugs. Many times those in a rush will pour the masala chai into a saucer to help cool the drink so it can be consumed faster.
The Bagel Bites theme song may go "pizza in the morning, pizza in the evening, pizza at suppertime ... you can eat pizza anytime," but the same applies to masala chai. Indians often consume cups of chai throughout the day. The Chai Cart serves its cups with Parle-G, a popular rectangular cookie that is optimal for dunking. Others serve chai with desserts like gulab jamun and a biscotti-like toast called rusk.
Puri tells Eater that he enjoys chai with an array of salty foods like bhelpuri — a snack typically made from puffed rice and chutney — as well as roasted nuts, and a steamed cake made from fermented rice called dhokla. Perhaps one of the most common accompaniments to chai is spicy samosas, a combination that The Chai Cart owners dub as "classic."
Tea hasn't always been incredibly popular in India. The British, who colonized India for many years, first attempted to plant Chinese tea in the country in 1780, notes the Indian Tea Association. However, it struggled to become popular. In the 1800s, the British discovered wild tea plants growing in what is known today as the region of Assam and began cultivating the plant, setting the groundwork for what has become one of the most popular drinks and industries in India.
These days, as chai has found footing in multiple continents, there's a number of less-than-traditional variations. Dishoom offers a chocolate chai laced with a dark chocolate syrup and chocolate shavings that can be made "naughty" with a shot of bourbon. The restaurant also boils down its classic masala chai into a syrup to make cocktails like the Bombay Colada — a chai-spiked twist on a piña colada — and version of a mojito dubbed the Chaijito. The Chai Cart has a menu rife with variations, too. They offer rose chai, malt chai and even a seasonal pumpkin spice chai.
In a way, masala chai has transcended the world of beverages and can be found flavoring dishes both sweet and savory. As its popularity continues to grow across the globe, there's only one thing to remember. No matter how you prefer to drink it — whether it be with ginger, in a small glass cup, or spiked with bourbon — never call it "chai tea."