Chai is the word for tea that’s used in many parts of the world, but in the West a lot of people confuse it with masala chai which is a blend of spices steeped with tea and milk that originated in India and is now consumed worldwide.
“Authentic chai is like an authentic turkey sandwich. It doesn’t exist,” writes Nissan Haque for Saveur in (what we think is) a brilliant piece, Stop Worrying About Authentic Chai, There’s No Such Thing. “Chai is different wherever you go… and that is its beauty. If you want to truly understand chai—the real chai—you need to think of it less a recipe than a social adhesive, and the fuel that powers a sizable fraction of the world.”
Masala chai, Haque continues, began as a byproduct of British colonization. Indian tea plantation workers took the low-quality black tea sold to them by the British and improved it by adding their own aromatic spices and the sweetness of cow’s milk to soften the bitter qualities of black tea.
But the practice of simmering tea with spices and milk isn’t limited to India or even Southeast Asia. It takes on different forms throughout Asia, the Middle East and Africa where its characteristics vary from region to region and even home to home. In Turkey, it’s called çay and brewed strong, sweetened with sugar instead of milk. In Tibet, it’s a drink made from fermented tea blended with milk, yak butter and salt called po cha. When it comes to masala chai, some people use a lot of ginger and omit cinnamon, while others go heavy on the milk.
Basically, there’s no one correct recipe for chai. But the thing that connects all its forms and flavors is how it nourishes and brings people together. Each unique blend of ingredients is a reflection of the tastes, foodways and—most importantly—the care of the people who make it.