The Spread of Serious Chai Tea

Tea so chic, spice so nice

| August/September 1998

  • Chai can include (clockwise from top left) black tea leaves, ­coriander seeds, peppercorns, aniseed, sliced gingerroot, cinnamon sticks, and cloves.
  • Warm and spicy chai is a tea tradition in India and neighboring countries.

• Dinner Party Chai
• 220-Volt Chai
• Caffeine-free Chai 

Why chai? Why have national coffeehouse chains recently adopted this tea-based beverage? Why has Celestial Seasonings, the company that brought herb teas to mainstream grocery stores, acquired a chai company? What makes a beverage, long established as a cheap street food in its native land, suddenly achieve chic status on a continent far, far away?

Could it be the growing interest in Indian or Nepalese cuisine? Movie stars turned Tibetan advocates? Or the realization that, when it’s spiked with spices and frothed with steamed milk, people will actually pay close to $3 for what is, when you get right down to it, a cup of tea?

It could be any of these factors. As I started researching chai’s migration, I fortunately found myself drinking a lot of it, prepared by a variety of tea chefs. After much testing, I came to a conclusion: chai’s popularity has everything to do with taste. Made well, it’s delicious. It’s also fascinating because, like the culture of its home region, it has so many faces.

Chai originated in India, Nepal, and Tibet, where it is served by street vendors in cities and even small, remote villages. In northeastern India, where chai is drunk from newly made unglazed clay cups, the custom is to smash your cup after slurping the last drop, perhaps to signify enjoyment, akin to the practice of throwing wineglasses into the fireplace. Chai wallahs (vendors) also sell their wares aboard trains stopped at stations. Customers simply toss the earthenware cups out the windows when they’re finished. Some people swear that the taste of the clay cups actually enhances the taste of the tea.

In the West as in India, chai remains as individual as those who make it. No two Indian restaurants, if they make it themselves, serve the same kind of chai—and may it remain ever so!

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