Masala chai is a delicious blend of tea, spices, and milk enjoyed by, well, everyone, but it has a special significance for the Indian diaspora. The traditional drink, correctly made, is a connection to home and family. While meaningful, it’s not an ancient tradition. Indian people didn’t drink tea until the early 19th century, when the British Empire needed a place to grow tea after China began closing off trade with the West. Plantations in India took a long time to produce quality tea, and the Indian Tea Association (composed of British plantation owners and tea traders) boosted sales of the inferior product by promoting tea drinking among Indians.
Chaiwallas—street or roadside stand vendors that sold tea—started adding masala to tea sometime between World War I and the 1930s. This innovation was likely inspired by those Ayurvedic and Muslim medicinal spice brews—and because the cheap tea tasted bitter and strong. The Association took notice in the 1930s and started inspecting tea stalls to prevent the practice from spreading, even sending out competing tea hawkers who didn’t brew with spices—the addition of spices, the Association believed, meant that less tea would be used per serving and thus lower profits. While my research is ongoing, I suspect that many chaiwallas did not scale down the tea: Most modern masala chai recipes call for just as much (or more) tea as a plain cup would. But the Association shut down those tea stalls that used masala, calling it an adulteration of the product.
As history proves, that wasn’t the end of masala chai. “Adding the spices was really an act of rebellion against the British,” says Sana Javeri Kadri, owner of Diaspora Co., a single-origin sustainable spice company that supplies turmeric and other spices to chai drinkers and manufacturers. “Therefore, as our national symbol or a national drink, it’s a very symbolic one.”
The history of masala chai is a fascinating story told at Epicurious. But there’s more, as we get a rundown of the spices and a lesson in making authentic Indian tea, too.
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