Chai: The National Drink of India


Chai (2)In India, guests are known as “emissaries of god,” they drop by any time they want without warning. When they come, you serve. You almost always serve them Chai. Whenever guests would come over to our house, my mom would immediately ask me to make a pot of chai. “Chai” is the Hindi word for “tea” but it usually means the well-known sweetened spiced milk-tea of India.

Chai is ubiquitous in India. It is the perfect drink for India’s hot weather because the hot tea triggers the body’s natural cooling reflexes and actually helps bring your body temperature down. Most Indians drink Chai at least twice a day, once with breakfast and again for an afternoon tea, just like the British. As it turns out, the British foisted tea on Indians not only as a way to sell tea, but also sugar.

Not surprisingly, the tea industry was brought to India by the British. Some of the best tea in the world grows in Darjeeling using tea and techniques for growing that the British East India Company stole from China in the 19th century.

Chai – the drink India can’t live without

It is an accident of history that at the time the British stole tea from China in a great act of industrial espionage, they also had a glut of sugar which they wanted to push as well, leading to Chai.

Chai is served on every street corner and on crowded train stations at all times of the day or night. In Bombay, chai is made so strong that the standard serving is “cutting chai,” a half glass of chai made strong enough that a half serving is plenty. If you want a full glass of chai, ask for a “double cutting chai”.

It is quite a sight to watch a street side vendor pour a cutting chai. They take one full glass of chai and one empty one. The chai is poured back and forth from one glass to another a few times from about 3 feet up and split equally between the two glasses. And amazingly not a single drop is spilled. This also helps to bring the chai down to drinking temperature.

Tea is India’s most popular drink – the country consumes 837,000 tonnes of it every year. The ritual of drinking chai transcends all boundaries, and roadsides are dotted with chai wallahs who serve it boiled up with spices, sugar and milk.

In many regions of the world, the word ‘Chai’ is the word used for tea. In India, however, ‘Chai’ or ‘Masala Chai’ describes a hot beverage which is prepared using specially selected spices and black tea. Before being served, milk or frothed milk is added. Going to India, you will find this delicious drink anywhere – in trains, at bus stations or on markets. Today, Chai is increasingly gaining popularity all over the world and it is a delicious alternative to coffee.

Indian Chai

Indians typically serve tea in their homes several times a day. India is the world’s second largest producer of tea and 70% of it is consumed within India. By April this year, chai will be officially declared the national drink of India.

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Chai, a creamy, soothing South Asian beverage, combines black tea, spices, sugar and milk. Masala is a generic term for “a mixture of spices,” and chai is a generic term for “tea.” (Yes, “chai tea” is redundant—the phrase drives me bonkers!).  Chai is ubiquitous on the Indian subcontinent and in homes across the diaspora. An offering of tea is a sign of welcome and generosity. Every person who visited my childhood home was greeted with a cup of warm, milky, spicy tea.


Many American coffee bars list chai on their menus, but their concoctions tend to be overpriced and under-spiced. And the tea bags, pre-ground spice mixtures, and concentrates found on supermarket shelves are woefully bland. A proper masala chai made is made with loose tea and whole spices, resulting in a pungent and rich brew.

The spices that make up a traditional masala chai usually include some combination of cardamom, ginger, clove, black pepper and cinnamon. However, a cup of masala chai can be made to suit personal taste and preferences. My mother, for example, prefers cloves; my father would rather have fennel seeds. I’ve even known home cooks to empty their entire spice cabinet into their masala chai: coriander seeds, cumin seeds, threads of saffron, bay leaves, white peppercorns, even salt!

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