The name “chai” is the Hindi word for “tea,” origins from the word “cha,” in the Chinese which also means “tea.” When talking about chai, it means a mix of spices steeped into a tea-like beverage. The recipes of the mix for chai vary across continents, cultures, towns and families although the traditional ingredients usually include black tea brewed strong with milk and sweetened with sugar or honey and mixed with spices like cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, ginger, and black peppercorns.
The origin of chai dates back more than 5,000 years ago when a king ordered creation of a healing spiced beverage from herbs and spices for use in Ayurveda. A variety of indigenous spices was used to prepare the healing drink which then came the creation of chai tea.
Original versions of “masala chai,” or “spiced tea,” contained no actual Camellia sinensis tea leaves, milk nor sugar. The addition of sweet were only popularized thousands of years later (in the mid-1800s) when the British created the now famous tea-growing regions of India and popularized tea as a beverage.
You haven’t visited India until you experience its chai culture. But no worries, Masala chai (spiced tea) is a drink that you may find in almost every corner of India despite the fact that, chai may be spiced and prepared in completely different ways depending on the customs of the region, the town, or the person preparing it.
You can enjoy it at Chai “wallahs” which are Indian chai makers where you will find sit, stand, or set up shop with their chai-making gear on nearly every street corner of the town. Each chai wallah may have his or her own style of brewing and spicing which packed in small batches to order.
The concept of a chai latte had travelled out of India and became popular with Western consumers a decade ago.
Besides the native Assam tea bush, the British were also trying to smuggle the much-prized tea plants and seeds of China into India such as Camellia sinensis sinensis. The tea bushes were grown in the high-altitude, cool, rainy, and rugged mountains of Darjeeling where the environment mirrored China. By the mid 1850s, tea growing in Darjeeling had been so successful; however, Darjeeling produces 1 percent of India’s total tea output which would never reach the output of tea from Assam. Darjeeling is often refer to as the “Champagne” of teas which is similar to the fickle grapes of France. Darjeeling tea quality vary from year to year depending on the weather, soil conditions, and the terrain where the bushes grow.
Located in the state of West Bengal in eastern India, Darjeeling’s tea growing area range from 2,000 to 7,000 feet and spread across hills, valleys, steep vertical mountain ranges and up into alpine forests. Many microclimates throughout Darjeeling were formed due to the radical changes in elevation, including cool misty breezes, subtropical forest humidity, strong sunshine and monsoon rains. The challenging geography and rough, inaccessible terrain make Darjeeling to be an exclusive tea.
The unique and prized flavor of Darjeeling tea is defined by the terrain; of which, the teas grown at higher elevation in colder temperatures is the most expensive. The high prices are due to the Darjeeling bush growing in the steep terrain which makes it difficult to harvest, especially in fickle weather.
Darjeeling tea both variety (assamica) and the China variety (sinensis), are completely unique to this region of India where it has acclimated to the high elevation and rugged climate similar but unique from China’s. Therefore, many Darjeeling tea bushes may be a China-India hybrid, but it can’t be found anywhere else in the world.