What Is Chai?
If we’re getting very literal here, “chai” is the Hindi word for tea. I don’t want to burst your bubble, but I’m about to: when you say “chai tea,” you are actually saying “tea tea.” Yea, the English language kinda messed that one up. But you definitely aren’t incorrect in thinking that “chai” now has its own associations separate from straight-up tea. The common and popularized usage of the word “chai” actually refers to a mix of spices blended into a tea-like beverage. These spices generally include cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and ginger.
A Chai A Day Keeps The Doctor Away?
If you’ve ever consumed a chai-flavored beverage or food, congratulations: you have something in common with a king. The origins of chai date back 5,000 years to a king’s orders in what is now India. The king was craving a medicinal beverage for Ayurveda, a traditional medical practice that promotes healing through herbs and spices. So, this chai spice blend was created with several health benefits in mind:
- Ginger: To stimulate digestion
- Cloves: To relieve pain
- Cardamom: To elevate mood
- Cinnamon: To support circulation and respiratory function
This original beverage was called “masala chai” meaning “spiced tea". Ironically, it contained no tea leaves at all -- not until thousands of years later.
The British Are Coming!
Tea wasn’t introduced until the 19th-century, by the tea experts themselves: the British. In 1835, the British East India Company started commercial production of tea in the foothills of the Himalayas, which turned out to be the perfect climate for the camellia sinensis assamica tea plant: a.k.a. black tea. This black tea slowly made its way into the traditional masala chai recipes. Black tea made the beverage more expensive, so vendors in the early 1900s held costs down by including milk and sugar to increase volume.
In the 1960s, a mechanized form of tea production made black tea more affordable. This tea is called Crush, Tear, Curl Tea (CTC Tea) and didn’t have the same nuanced flavor as traditional black tea. It did, however, pair super well with masala chai flavors, making CTC masala chai a staple in modern India.
Modern Cultural Significance Of Chai
Today, the flavors of traditional masala chai have stood the test of time. In India, chai is used to welcome guests into one’s home, a sign of hospitality and warmth. In some areas, people drink chai everyday, up to 4 times a day, often with an afternoon snack around 4 P.M.
Across the world, Americans consume chai flavors in their favorite cafe beverages -- often made with syrup concentrate. But Indians still make masala chai with fresh ginger and fresh-ground spices, maintaining the amazing health benefits of the ingredients and honoring the origins of chai.
How You Can Experience The Benefits Of Chai
Given that we’re still talking about chai 5,000 years after its origin, it's pretty clear that this mix of spices is more than just a delicious flavor. But if you're artificially sweetening your chai tea latte -- or simply overloading it with sugar -- you may be missing out on the health benefits that the Indian king once swore by. Instead, consider incorporating authentic chai tea into your diet or foods containing the ingredients in a traditional masala chai: like Cinnamon Chai gr8nola. Our newest flavor of gr8nola contains ginger, cinnamon, cloves and cardamom: the original spice mix. And the king wasn’t so far off about the amazing health benefits this mix contains:
- Cinnamon is now known for containing powerful antioxidants and lower blood sugar. It also has anti-inflammatory properties to help your body fight infections and repair tissue.
- Ginger is now known to aid digestion by assisting in oxygen delivery to organs for optimal performance. It also helps reduce nausea thanks to biological compounds gingerol and shogaol, which have anti-inflammatory properties.
- Cloves are now known to help relieve minor pain. Some studies have shown that clove gel can even be used as a topical anesthetic similar to benzocaine.
- Cardamom is now known to be an antiseptic that can help detoxify your body, with antioxidant and antimicrobial properties.
As fall quickly approaches, your taste buds may slowly start craving those warm spicy flavors that all seem to appear out of nowhere on grocery shelves. Our tip? Embrace the kitschy fall spirit -- you may accidentally end up ingesting a 5,000-year-old superfood.