Masala Chai: sweet, spiced tea with a bitter origin
Cam Loeschmann // Columnist
Tea is a truly ancient plant—humans have been drinking it for thousands of years—but the teas of antiquity look much different from the beverages we drink today. As with any human invention, changes in time and place had various effects on tea. The biggest change, however, came with European colonialism.
At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Dutch East India Company started bringing tea to Europe to sell. Its popularity only grew when sugarcane plantations in the Americas started selling sugar back to Europe to sweeten the slight bitterness that tea naturally had. This sugar was inexpensive since the labour needed to grow and process sugarcane was provided primarily by enslaved West African people.
As camellia sinensis (tea) became more popular, it became necessary to grow it on huge plantations as sugar had been. This required expanses of land and populations of cheap labour. Since the British East India Company had power in India since the 1750s, they saw an opportunity in the region of Assam and started the first tea estates there in the early nineteenth century. “At first, this valuable commodity was strictly for export,” writes Justin Rowlatt for BBC News, “but as production grew and the price fell, Indians began drinking tea too … and they followed the example of the British and drank their tea with milk and sugar.”
As wonderful as it would be to travel to India to speak to a chaiwallah at the source, there is unfortunately, a pandemic going on. Fortunately, Shivam Jaiswal came to Vancouver four years ago and, unable to find authentic Chai here, started selling his own. Follow @ChaiWagon on Instagram for a daily update on where the carts are so you can try some for yourself! Jaiswal sells dairy and non-dairy versions, as well as snacks and tins of tea that you can make at home.
“Chai is not just a drink—it is a culture in itself,” said Jaiswal. “In India, Chai is much more than a drink to begin your day with. It has become an integral part of the culture and life of every Indian. In fact, if you take a walk around any local Indian road, you will definitely find chaiwallahs (tea sellers) steaming up a hot Masala Chai for their customers.”
Of course, Chai is somewhat different from typical black tea with a spoonful each of milk and sugar. “A regular cup of Chai in India is made by boiling water, milk, sugar and black tea together,” says Shivam. “We make our Chai as authentic as possible. We add fresh organic ginger and crushed green cardamoms in our Chai.”
This simple blend of two spices surprised me when I first tasted the tea from Chai Wagon. “Chai making process is really very simple. It has been made … complicated here in the west.” The Chai blends made by the tea company I work for, for example, use many different blends of spices, including nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, peppercorns, anise, fennel, allspice and chilli.
Jaiswal has a major pet peeve about Western Chai, aside from sugary Chai-flavoured syrups that are easily found in cafes and grocery stores. “Chai is an Indian word for tea. So when you say ‘Chai Tea,’ it sounds really weird. So I have a very humble request to all of you reading this … please forget the [term] Chai Tea, because it does not exist.”
In fact, Chai (and similar words) is the word for tea in many languages, with a few interesting exceptions, such as English. The origins of this discrepancy go back to China. Nikhil Sonnad writes for Quartz, “The Chinese character for tea, 茶, is pronounced differently [in] different varieties of Chinese, though it is written the same in them all. In today’s Mandarin, it is chá. But in the Min Nan variety of Chinese, spoken in the coastal province of Fujian, the character is pronounced te.”
It was these coastal areas of China and Taiwan that traded with early European merchants, so those seafarers brought back tea as well as the word that many languages now use for it, including “thé” in French and “tii” in Maori. Meanwhile, places that got their tea from anywhere else in China via the Silk Road, like Russia and India, still use the “cha” word root.
The old saying might be “for all the tea in China,” but nowadays, it might be more accurate to speak of all the tea in India, which “was the second-largest producer of tea in the world after China” in 2020, according to Sandhya Keelery for Statista. About a billion kilograms of tea were consumed within India’s borders—much of this is classic, sweet black tea known as Masala (“spiced”) Chai.
What makes Chai have such phenomenal staying power around the world, not just in its place of origin? We can talk about how dark, tannin-heavy tea plays well off of milk and sugar or how the rich spice flavours linger on the tongue. What keeps me, personally, coming back to the Chai Wagon closest to me is the warm conversations that I have with the people who make my Chai and the other people waiting in line next to me. Drinking tea by oneself is okay, but tea is made for keeping you company and making you new friends with whom to drink it.