What is chai?
Whether you’ve stumbled across a chai latte at your local coffee house or even the supermarket, you may be left questioning what it is. To answer this, it is best to shift our gaze to the West and more specifically India, where this journey indeed begins.
If you are lucky enough to have wandered the streets of India, you will have experienced what can only be described as an explosion to the senses. The bright colours, loud noises and delicious scents, which characterise this environment all directly feed into chai and its creation.
On each street you may pass chai wallahs, the connoisseurs of chai, throwing handfuls of spices and sugar into huge pots of boiling milk; surrounded by locals, each eager to get a quick hit of energy and nutrients. Each season the ingredients included in these boiling pots would vary depending upon what was available. This became so engrained into the daily rhythm of Indian life, that almost 800,000 tonnes of chai are now consumed in India each and every year.
In more recent times we have seen this iconic national beverage spread its reach to almost every corner of the globe. No matter its guise, only a few ‘migrated’ chai lattes or teas have managed to recreate what is so special about the authentic one. From the spices of cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg and cloves to the balance of sweet and sugar to the creamy texture that a chai should have, only those products who capture this have been truly successful outside of India. But those who do exist are managing to forge a market for chai, in fact, the ‘Tetley Tea Report 2018’ found that the market for Chai in the UK alone, has grown by 93.8%; suggesting that the infatuation with chai is not slowing down any time soon.
Chai latte mirrors the comforting and warming qualities of hot chocolate, whilst simultaneously reflecting the characteristics of a speciality tea and seemingly having the name of a coffee. Although it may share the properties of these other hot beverages, it can only truly be described as unique.
So what is chai?