cups of chai, Indian spice teaWhat is Chai?

Starbucks helped to catapult it into the mainstream and now even the less-trendy Dunkin’ Donuts is serving up chai drinks. This popular Indian drink is composed of a base of strong black tea and such spices as cardamom, cinnamon and cloves.

Steeped in Tradition

Chai (which means “tea” in Hindi) has been a traditional beverage in the homes of millions of families in India for centuries. It is such an important part of India’s social customs that they have their own chai vendors called Chaiwallahs; their stands are most often the meeting point for news and gossip. This version of tea, also known as Masala Chai (spiced tea), is made up of a unique blend of ground spices including cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom and often pepper.

Chai recipes have changed a great deal since the drink’s conception over 5,000 years ago and can differ depending on region, culture and household. For example, chai from Kashmir is primarily flavored with cardamom pods and almonds, while in south India, tea is generally served British style, in porcelain cups with sugar and milk but with no spices.

Variety is the Spice of Life

Chai has been one of the best-selling teas for years, and with the wide array of flavors, blends and mixes now available, you’ll find one that will suit your fancy. For instance, green tea, rather than black, is being used as the base by many chai suppliers for its touted health benefits. One of the most popular green teas used for chai is gunpowder tea, which gives the closest taste to a stronger black tea, but with higher antioxidant levels and less caffeine. And rooibos, a South African red tisane, is surfacing as a much requested caffeine-free base for the tea drink, as is the trendy South American beverage yerba mate. Some companies have come out with flavored versions of chai like coconut, pumpkin and vanilla.

Chai Health Benefits

The antioxidant content of tea could mean that drinking three or more cups a day could reduce the risk of a wide range of health problems, ranging from cancer to heart disease, and may even be healthier than water, says a review from Britain. “Drinking tea is actually better for you than drinking water,” reviewer Dr. Carrie Ruxton from Nutrition Communications told the British Broadcasting Corp. “Water is essentially replacing fluid. Tea replaces fluids and contains antioxidants so it’s got two things going for it,” she added.