Chai means tea

"What this cup of warm, spiced milk – somewhere between a drink and a pudding – highlighted was how the western world takes something from a different culture and changes it. Usually for the worst." The Guardian

Whilst we were having a Messenger hook up with our grandchildren yesterday I saw that they were drinking what I thought was soup in a mug. I thought it was soup because they were drinking it with a spoon, but it turns out that they were actually drinking some kind of chai thin smoothie. I do not know the actual recipe but I remember it had some dates and peanut butter and almond milk in there - and my daughter-in-law's own spice mix. There were probably a few other things too, but whether there was any actual tea in there I do not know. And if there isn't it goes to show how far chai - the term has strayed from what it actually is. Tea. Chai is the Indian - well I think hindu - word for tea. It's as simple as that. And finding that this was the case confirmed that in my head I had remembered my father saying that chai meant tea. In fact the English back then, often referred to a cup of tea as a cup of char.


And did you know that in the early nineteenth century the East India Company became concerned that England got 90% of its tea from China? They spotted that some Indians grew tea in Assam and so they exploited this, introduced tea to the Indian populace on a grand scale - they gave it for free to the factory workers - and changed the major proportion of tea sold in England from Chinese to Indian and Sri Lankan. By 1910 only 5% of the tea consumed in England was Chinese. The Indians had previously not really drunk tea either, other than as a medicine, and although it was introduced to them made in the English way, they couldn't resist adding spices. Thus the origins of chai as we know it today, which, strictly speaking is masala chai - spiced tea.


Most articles I read seemed to think that the fad of today came from Starbucks, although others say it was brought back to the west by the hippies of the 60s who spent time in India. Be that as it may there is no doubt that chai lattes and chai are now big business in cafés and on your supermarket shelves. Why?


"Chai lattes have taken off because some coffee drinkers were looking for an alternative - a sweet, warm, milky drink without the caffeine overload that they could have as a pick-me-up in the afternoon ... real tea and coffee drinkers aren't opting for chai - it's the people in the middle who drink it and, of course, there are a lot of them." Sydney Morning Herald

They are not healthy though, not at all medicinal like the original chai, because they are often made with powder and syrup - some versions have been shown to have as many as 20 teaspoons of sugar in a cup.


Which isn't to say that you can't make your own, or that some cafés don't make good ones. There actually is no traditional recipe anyway. Although maybe you should use tea leaves, but then again you can buy expensive tea bags which are probably 'authentic'. T2 of course, sells a huge amount of chai mixes - they have at least six different ones and all the equipment you might need, plus a number of recipes for other things you can do with chai including these Portuguese tarts.


Even though there does not seem to be one standard recipe for the chai spice mix, cardamom, cinnamon and ginger seem to be absolutely crucial. The rest seems to be a personal taste thing, though common others were star anise, fennel seeds and black peppercorns. So I turned to Madhur Jaffrey and found that she has two different recipes. Her original recipe is found in Indian Cooking but over the years she modified it because:


“What happens with recipes is that you write them, and within one year, you’re cooking a different way. Now I’m making it this way and it’s easier." Madhur Jaffrey


You can find this recipe and pictures of her demonstrating it on the Food52 website.


As I said, the spice mix is varied but I should also mention that the milk is also varied. Of course, in cafés you can get it made with all sorts of non-milks - they say soy milk is good, and I think my daughter-in-law used almond milk. But how you introduce that milk is not consistent. Some brew the tea in the milk. Some add hot milk after you have brewed the tea in hot water. Some froth the milk and add it like a latte and then some do not add milk at all. And the amount of milk you use seems to be a personal thing. So it's a true moving feast. One writer on a site called Little Vienna thought that Madhur Jaffrey's original version was great, but added some salt to her mix, which she said made all the difference. And there were fennel seeds and star anise too.


Then there are the recipes and the products. Coles has at least two cereal mixes that contain chai flavouring whatever that means. As for recipes - they seem to be mostly centred either on breakfast stuff, like porridge and pancakes, or desserts. Greatist has 21 recipes that show the type of thing on offer, and I'm sure you could find more.


So it's really a bit hard to say what chai is. Is it just tea? Is it an actual drink? Or is it a spice mix that you can more or less make up yourself - as long as you include the tea, the ginger, cardamom and cinnamon, and then do whatever you like with it. Sugar - well the general opinion does seem to be for sweet, but how much is probably a personal taste thing - and yes some use honey instead - but you would just have to stir that in at the end.


Personally I don't like tea. Well not the kind of black tea that is used for chai. The occasional Earl Grey or Jasmine, maybe - something really light - but not tea. So I don't think I'm going to be trying it out. And yes you can get Chai perfumes too. Now I do like Green Tea perfume although I suspect the Chai variety might be too spicy for me.

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