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Chai tea – India’s national drink

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Family: Theaceae

Scientific name: Camellia sinensis

Variety: var assamica

Trade name: Assam tea (black tea)

Second to water, tea is the most popular beverage in the world. It is used to quench thirst, heal, and keep hydrated. When the weather is cold, it is used to keep warm. In hot weather, it is used to raise internal temperature, so the external temperature does not feel as hot. In India, raising internal temperature also has spiritual significance. 

Agni is a Sanskrit word that means fire. This can be the fire in the stomach, the sacrificial fire in an altar, the fire of death (or cremation), the fire of birth, lightning – which represents atmospheric fire, and the sun – which represents celestial fire. In Hinduism, Agni is the god of fire. In yoga, fire is known as shakti, and it represents creative energy.

In India, it is believed that activities such as Kapalbhati (Pranayama known as the breath of fire), eating spicy food, and drinking hot tea raises the agni or shakti, the internal creative fire.   

India has varying climatic conditions with some parts considered hot. Even so, drinking tea is a popular activity so much so that chai tea is regarded as a national drink that is drunk all year round throughout the country. 

The history of Chai tea

The word tea came from the Chinese Amoy word t’e, pronounced tay. The Dutch were the first to import tea into Europe from China and they called it thee, which became tea in English. The Mandarin word for tea is cha, throughout Asia the word was pronounced differently and in India it was pronounced as chai

Chai tea was first introduced into India during colonialism in the early 19th century and was indigenised and has come to be regarded as India’s national drink. Before the indigenisation of chai tea, Indians used to consume a herbal infusion known as kadha

Kadha, also known as karha, is an ayurvedic herbal drink prepared using herbs and spices that is taken as a tonic for hydration and to treat a range of conditions, ailments, and conditions. It is also used to restore and balance the body and the three doshas (Vita, Pitta, and Kapha). 

An example of kadha:

Kadha can be made using water, lemon juice, honey, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, basil leaves, and black pepper.  

In 1823, Robert Bruce came to India to supply weapons and while in Assam (a state in India) was presented with leaves that resembled those of the popular tea plant, Camellia sinensis var sinensis. The leaves were confirmed as a variety of the popular tea plant and became scientifically known as Camellia sinensis var assamica, common name Assam tea, a type of black tea. Later, the black tea became the main ingredient in chai tea. 

What is Chai tea?

Today’s version of chai tea was born from Britain’s efforts to encourage Indians to drink tea in order to boost the economy and fund World War I. At the time, Indians still preferred drinking kadha as it was affordable and tasted better than Britain’s version of tea. To lower the price and improve the taste of tea, tea sellers started making tea more like kadha by adding herbs and spices and sugar and milk. Today’s version of chai is what ancient Indians called kadha (a concoction of herbs and spices) mixed with milk and sugar. The main herb being the Assam tea leaves. The other herbs and spices that were used in kadha and now in chai include:

  • Basil – contains a significant amount of Vitamin A and C, Phosphorus, and Calcium. Ideal for people with various skin conditions.
  • Cardamon – known as the king of spices. It is added to coffee to reduce acidity.
  • Cinnamon – a spice that can reduce the levels of blood glucose ideal for patients with type 2 diabetes. 
  • Cloves – well known for its antifungal and antimicrobial activities. Ideal for people with dental issues. 
  • Cumin – contains antiseptic activities with a significant amount of calcium, copper, iron, potassium, and zinc. Ideal for people with sleep difficulty.
  • Ginger – known for treating nausea and digestive problems.
  • Parsley – known as a detoxifying herb and relieves itching. 
  • Thyme – known for treating bronchitis, colds, diarrhoea, handover, poor appetite, and stomach problems. 
  • Turmeric – a source of antioxidants.

How is Chai tea prepared?

There are different blends of Chai tea throughout India and the world. Traditional chai tea is what most call Masala chai. It is prepared by boiling water in a pan then adding Assam black tea, giving the mixture a dark colour. A blend of herbs and spices are added, to give the decoction a spicy flavour. The colour will depend on the added spices and herbs. Milk, cream, or condensed milk is added to give a rich flavour resulting in a pinkish brown colour. Finally, sugar, honey, or a sweetener is added for a sweet taste. Jaggery, non-centrifugal cane sugar, is typically used in rural parts of India instead of sugar.  

Different herbs and spices, different types of milk and creams, and different sweeteners are blended together to create unique variations. In India, chai tea can either be thick and strong, mildly sweet, mildly sweet and strong, sweet and rich, very sweet and thick, and sweet, thick, and rich. 

Variations of Chai tea 

The most popular blends of chai tea from India and around the world include:

  • Bambay or Dabal chai – is chai that was imported via Bombay, the previous name for Mumbai, the capital city of the Indian state of Maharashtra. It is made with green tea, cardamon, almonds, sugar, and milk.
  • Sheer or Gulabi or Nun chai – is chai made with oolong tea, salt, bicarbonate of soda, and milk or cream. The mixture is boiled over a fire to give it the frothy texture and pinkish brown colour. This type of chai is typically served for breakfast. 
  • Qymaq chai – is chai made by boiling green tea, salt, cardamon, and bicarbonate of soda over fire in a pan until it turns dark red. Milk and sugar is added to give it the pinkish brown colour. This type of chai is served at weddings in small porcelain cups called istekhan.  
  • Kaymak chai – is the Middle Eastern version of the Afghani Qymay chai. 
  • Paani kim chai – is chai made by boiling Assam black tea in milk with spices, and sweeteners. It is popular among Iranis in India. 
  • Masala chai – is chai that originated in India. It is green or black tea that is mixed with spices, sweeteners, and milk. It can be served hot or cold.
  • Starbucks chai latte – is chai latte mixed with spices, condensed milk or cream, frothed in an espresso machine, and topped with whipped cream. 

South Africa doesn’t have a lot of tea cafes like other countries. There is a reason why tea is the second most consumed beverage in the world. It has incredible potential to significantly improve health and wellbeing. Chai tea is a great starter product for a tea cafe as it has unlimited variations that can be made to have different flavours and health benefits.   

Learn about other teas such as Hibiscus Tea and Mosukujane & Zumbani Teas | Learn about other Indian products such as Tulsi (Ocimum sanctum Linn), Henna (Lawsonia inermis L.), & Umlotha wamandiya / Holy ash / Vibhuti 

Safety precaution:

The use of traditional medicine in prescribed dosages will yield good results. Misuse and abuse may lead to complications. To learn about correct dosage, consult a traditional healer or a herbalist. You can also visit or email: to learn more about traditional medicine.  

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