From Ayurvedic Ambrosia to Americanized Coffeehouse Treat
According to lore, masala chai’s history began thousands of years ago in an ancient royal court. Some legends say it was created 9000 years ago, while others say it was 5000 years ago. Some say the court was located in what is now India, while others attribute masala chai to Thai origins. Regardless, it is said that a king created it as a cleansing, vivifying Ayurvedic beverage. Even early on, masala chai was made with a wide range of spices and prepared with many different methods. It was served hot or cold as a remedy for mild ailments. At this time, the spicy-sweet drink known as “masala chai” did not contain any tealeaves and was caffeine free.
Black Tea’s Arrival
In 1835, the British set up tea plantations in Assam, India. The black teas produced there made their way into local masala chai recipes. This is the first appearance of masala chai as we know it, complete with spices, milk, sweetener and tea. However, this mixture lacked mass appeal, as tea was primarily an export and was too expensive for most Indians.
Mass Popularity in India
In the early 1900s, when the British-owned Indian Tea Association began to promote Indian tea consumption within India. Because black tea was the most expensive ingredient, vendors used milk, sugar and spices to keep their brews flavorful while keeping costs down. Masala chai's popularity spread. Masala chai became even more popular in India in the 1960s, when a mechanized form of tea production called 'CTC' made black tea affordable for the Indian masses. CTC (or 'Crush, Tear, Curl') tea lacks the nuances that many crave in an unadorned cup of tea, but it does have a bold, tannic flavor that made it a tasty foil to masala chai’s sweet, creamy and spicy notes. For this reason, CTC masala chai remains a staple in many parts of India.Regionally, street vendors and train vendors calledchai wallahs ('tea persons,' kind of like a barista of chai) serve masala chai to the public. Chai is also used to welcome guests into the home. In some areas, people drink an average of about four small cups of chai per day. A popular time for chai is an afternoon snack at around 4 PM. This snack may include savory treats like samosas, pakoras, farsan(Gujarati snacks) and nashta (savory breakfast foods that double as snack foods).