Black tea: (Masala) Chai

Masala Chai

Numbing, calming and medicinal. It’s a remedial tincture, not a tea.
Black tea » Indian » Assam, ★

This is my first time drinking “chai”. Again, I’ve abstained because the nomenclature (“chai”) is so wrong. In most Eurasian languages, “chai” (or a variation on the word) simply means “tea”, so defining “chai” as a drink that contains cinnamon, cloves, cardamon, peppercorns, star anise and milk has long perplexed me. My insistence on correct nomenclature was humiliating when I met people who knew little or nothing about tea (but drank it anyway): “Call yourself an expert? But you don’t know what ‘chai’ is? Everyone knows what chai is!”

So what is “chai”?

Here’s the answer: “chai” is a shortened form of “चाय मसाला”, or “masala chai”, which means “spiced tea” in Hindi. In English, it’s been shortened to “chai” (or, worse, the tautological “chai tea”).

  • Tea = chai (Hindi), chay (Persian), cha (Chinese)
  • Milk = latte (Italian)
  • Spiced = masala (Hindi)

I would allow “Masala Chai”, or “Indian Masala Chai”, but not “Chai” (as my tea merchant called it) when labelling this drink.

The aroma alone of Masala Chai gives me a very warming feeling. The first taste I notice is that of cloves, which tingle the tip of my tongue and then numb it. Sexy. The star anise makes me feel wholesome and warm, and the peppercorns and cardamon feel like they could cure colds and flu (if I had one). As the tea cools, a minty flavour emerges, and the tea resembles that served in Xinjiang restaurants. I’ve long been looking for that tea!

As a fan of Chinese cooking, I look at the tea and think, “this is a perfect marinade for pork belly!” In fact, the Masala in this Masala Chai is almost identical to the spice mix used in Chairman Mao’s signature dish, 红烧肉 (red-braised pork). By coincidence, the spices are also the same as Mulled Wine Spices, which can be purchased from most supermarkets for a fraction of the price of this tea. (Mix them with any Assam tea and you’ve made your own Masala Chai. Simple.)

I drank it without milk, and brewed it much lighter than most other Caucasian people would. I give Masala Chai three stars because while I would never buy it, I would gladly accept it if it were offered by somebody else. ★★

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