Posted in Kafevend Blog

The spice of life

As promised last week, today's blog returns to India to consider another of the nation's most iconic teas. This time around we're going to take a look at chai, or rather masala chai. Although in the West  the word 'chai' is synonymous with the spiced black tea drink, chai actually just means tea. Masala, however, means mixed spices so it's masala chai that we're really drinking! Chai has become extremely popular in the UK in the past few years and many coffee shops have got in on the act too with chai latte on the menu. We began to wonder when this aromatic tea drink became part of the status quo in India and also if a chai latte bears much of a resemblance to a bona fide Indian masala chai.

Choose your favourite spices

If you're into chai it's likely you'll have tried out various brands from your local supermarket and discovered that there's quite a range of flavours out there. The same is true in India itself. Although commercial varieties exist, families tend to have their own preferred mix of spices to add to the black tea. This means there's an endless variety of masala chai. Typically used spices include cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, ginger and black pepper; star anise, fennel, coriander, nutmeg and licorice are also popular contenders.

Rather than making an infusion with a teabag, preparing masala chai from scratch the Indian way involves bringing to the boil a pan that contains a mixture of water, whole milk, black tea, sugar and whole spices. It's then simmered for a while and poured into cups via a tea strainer. The best tea to use if you're considering having a go yourself is Assam, which as we noted last week has a strong, malty taste, making it robust enough to impart its own flavour alongside the chosen spices.

The beginning of tea's popularity in India

Although masala chai is part of the fabric of everyday life in India today, surprisingly its history doesn't stretch back all that far. Although tea is native to the Assam region and has been used by people there since time immemorial, tea wasn't a feature of the diet elsewhere in India; elite members of society did drink it, but mainly in a medicinal capacity. When the British East India Company commercialised tea production in India in the 1830s the bulk of the tea was shipped back to Britain to satisfy demand here.

It wasn't until a century later, when Britain was in the grip of the economic slump of the 1930s, that producers saw the need to create demand for tea in India itself. One of the marketing strategies employed was to hand out free samples at busy places such as railway stations. There were plenty of posters advertising tea's benefits too. The majority of the population remained unconvinced; Gandhi himself viewed tea as one of the symbols of imperialist power. This last fact goes a long way to explaining why it took until Indian independence in 1947 and the gradual transfer of tea estates into Indian ownership for the public to begin to be won over.

Nowadays, India's commitment to tea is unquestionable. Where once the tea harvest was gathered in and the bulk of it exported, nowadays between 70 and 80% stays in India to meet consumer demand. As well as being the drink of choice at home, tea vendors abound on street corners. Tea, and particularly masala chai, has become such an integral part of daily life that younger generations of Indians find it hard to believe it hasn't always been that way!


The triumph of tea
Masala chai
History of masala chai

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