There’s No Such Thing as “Chai Tea”

This is actually two articles in one. The first is Chai Tea at the Indian Restaurant, posted in April 2010. The second is Tea Terminology — “Chai Tea” vs. “Masala Chai”, posted in November 2012. I saw a post on Facebook on this topic and thought what the heck, time to revisit my take on this. The topic seems to be one of those that bears repeating. Again. And again. And again.

Tea Terminology — “Chai Tea” vs. “Masala Chai”

The tea-milk-spices coming to a full boil. (Photo source: A.C. Cargill, all rights reserved)
The tea-milk-spices coming to a full boil. (Photo source: A.C. Cargill, all rights reserved)

Living languages, that is, ones still in use on an active basis, are pretty fluid, with new terms coming around, others dropping out, and meanings sliding around between them. When a term comes into common usage, even if it’s incorrect, it gets accepted and is hard to change. Such is the case with the term “chai tea.”

Tea vendors both large and small use this term. You can see their products everywhere labeled “chai tea.” Usually, they use the term to indicate a tea that has various spices added, most often things like cardamom, anise, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, and black pepper. Thus, many tea drinkers have come to think of “chai” as meaning “spices” or “spiced.” I used to think this, too, until one day I ordered chai at the Indian restaurant and the server (who was also one of the owners — it was a family business) explained that “chai” meant “tea.” He then asked if I wanted it spiced and with milk and sugar. I thought that’s what I had ordered. Clearly, there was a breakdown in communication here.

Which is why I fuss so much about tea terminology.

It turns out that the correct term for spiced tea is “masala chai.” “Masala” is a spice mix, something I learned at the local Indian market. In fact, there are masalas for different foods, such as chicken, beef, and even vegetables like chickpeas (garbanzos) and murgh (spinach). I bought some tea masala to use when making my own spiced tea. Now when I go to that Indian restaurant and order my favorite dish (lamb vindaloo extra spicy), I know also to order “masala chai.” They don’t use too much masala, and the milk helps quell the fiery spices in the vindaloo.

It certainly pays to use the right terminology, but the issue is using that right terminology in the right situation or context. If I go to a tea vendor’s web site or to a brick and mortar store and ask for “masala chai,” quite often the response is either “no search results found” or a glazed-eye stare and the sound of crickets chirping. It means being somewhat of a linguist or interpreter. Okay, now I’m in the Indian restaurant so I use the term “masala chai.” Okay, now I’m in a tea shop, so I gotta use the term “chai tea.”

Maybe it’s best just to order straight tea and do the “masala-ing” myself (see what I mean about “living language”?). Fine with me, since I’ll get those spices just right!

Chai Tea at the Indian Restaurant

“Chai” is an Indian word (based on the Chinese word “cha”) that means “tea.” In India, chai starts with a black tea (Assam) and is served with spices, lots of milk, and a generous portion of sugar. The secret to a good chai is in which spices and how much. This varies widely from one chai version to another.

Hubby and I love chai (that is, spiced tea with milk and sweetener). We’ve tried quite a variety over the years. Some have lots of cinnamon, nutmeg, and other spices that those of us here in the West associate with the Winter Holidays. Others have spices more associated with those used in Indian cuisine: coriander, cumin, ginger, etc. A lot of times, the amount of these spices (either version) are overly loud (sort of like a lot of popular music these days).

Along with chai, hubby and I also love Indian foods and either fix them at home (usually chicken or beef curry) or dine out at one of the Indian restaurants in the area. (Thank goodness there is a sizable population of people from India living here.) The other day, we visited our favorite Indian restaurant in town, which serves one of the best Indian-style chais we have ever tasted. Hubby and I imbibed greedily in between mouthfuls of the delicious foods off the lunch buffet.

Dishes that are exotic-sounding, such as goat curry and saag paneer, lend their delicious flavor to this chai, which is so refined in its use of spices, so subtle with the milk lending a smooth texture and the sugar coming through in a most unprepossessing manner, that it blends with, instead of fighting, the flavors of the foods. We had to ask the host (the restaurant is a family affair, and our host was either the son or brother of the owner) the secret of this wonderful mixture.

Of course, they start with the strong, rich, malty flavor of Assam black tea. They add in a small amount of “masala” (it just means a mix of spices — this one happens to be made for tea while others are for different Indian dishes) and steep it dark. They add in milk and let it sit just below boiling for awhile so the spices can really infuse into the tea. The tea is poured into sturdy, white, restaurant-style china cups and sugar is added.

We were so impressed with this tea that on the way home from the restaurant we stopped off at an Indian grocery. It didn’t have big wide aisles, food demonstrators coaxing us to try this or that, music playing that was designed to put us in the mood to buy more, or any of the other trappings in today’s large grocery chainstores. It did have the most wonderful aroma that embraced you the moment you opened the front door and entered. It had just about every type of rice, lentil, spice, and other foods that make Indian dishes taste so splendid. And it had the most personable, hard-working, polite, and helpful proprietor we have had the pleasure of meeting. We told him what we were seeking, and he knew right away what product fit this need.

Now it’s up to us. Scurrying home with our purchases, we determined to try to duplicate that wonderful taste. It took a bit of experimenting, but we came close. Maybe we need to make up a batch of curry to go with the chai. That might be the missing ingredient. At any rate, it’s so much fun to try new things with tea that we’ll keep trying until we get it right.

Hope you can have your own tea experiment, whether it’s chai or trying various green teas or something else tea related. Enjoy!

Tea_Blog_Indian-RestChaiA004

© 2015 A.C. Cargill photos and text

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3 Comments

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  1. Well said, well done! Indian food is my absolute favorite. And indeed chai is cha is tea. The word was spread around the world from 2 parts of China. Thank you for sharing!

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  2. Great post. I brought this topic up to a local cafe near me long ago. The owners were surprised chai meant tea and that they were actually calling it “tea tea”. However, they continued to label it as “chai tea” because they believed customers who weren’t aware didn’t know the “chai” on their menu was tea unless they had tea labeled on it. Frustrating to know they didn’t want to simply educate, but rather take a step back because it was “easier”.

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    • Exactly my frustration. In fact, I got that same statement from the guy who is now the chief tea guy at Teavana/Starbucks. Sigh! Well, we can keep spreading the word a little at a time. Thanks for reading!

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