Life in Lockdown: The Tea Series - Chai

by Aarifah Loonat 

Kya aap chai loge? Or, will you have tea?


Let’s start with the basics (yes, I’m talking to you, people who say “chai tea”). What is chai? The word “chai” is the Hindi word for “tea”. The term originates from the Chinese word “cha”, which also means tea.

As society progressed, chai became the well-known term for the spiced tea beverage that we all know and love. In India chai is not a flavour of a tea, but it is tea. Chai is the standard way of making tea, that is consumed throughout India.

Chai is traditionally a mix of spices that are steeped with black tea leaves, to create the spicy, comforting beverage we know today. Recipes for chai differ around the world, in different cultures, towns and families.

The traditional mixture for chai is black tea mixed with cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, ginger and black peppercorns. It is typically a strong brew of tea that is made with hot milk and is sweetened with sugar or honey.

In my house, its not chai unless you’ve boiled it on the stove. However, the chai that we buy in cafes has very little in common with the original Indian chai. 

Photo by Author


The origins of chai date back to over 5000 years ago in an ancient royal court where a king, of what is now known as India, asked for a healing spiced beverage to be created as a cleansing, energizing Ayuverdic beverage.

Back then people turned to herbs and spices to remedy illnesses. According to Teatulia, a company that sells teas, the heat from ginger and black pepper was believed to stimulate digestion.

Cloves contain antiseptic properties which were believed to help relieve pain, cardamom was included as a mood elevator, cinnamon supported the circulatory and respiratory function, and star anise was included to freshen the breathe. The drink was served either hot or cold as a remedy for mild ailments.

As the healing beverage spread across India people began mixing up the spices used in their chai. Recipe's differed depending on the region of the continent or even the neighbourhood where the healing beverage was being made.

In fact, the original versions of chai did not contain any tea leaves and were caffeine-free. Milk and sugar were also later additions to the famous brew. The addition of black tea leaves, milk and sugar became popular in the mid-1800s. The Camellia sinensis assamica tea leaves (a common tea leaf) were discovered in India and cultivated by the British colonizers, who preferred a strong black tea with milk and sugar.

Today, there are many different chai recipes that use different spice combinations. This means chai has a variety of flavour profiles, depending on the region. Chai that has more ginger and black pepper has a heated bite, while chai that has more vanilla, cinnamon or nutmeg may have a sweeter taste to it. Chai made with saffron or cacao has an earthy bitterness, while chai made with fennel or cumin has a more savoury taste. 

Health benefits

Chai may help improve your heart’s health. Cinnamon, a main ingredient in chai, is known to lower blood pressure. In some individuals, cinnamon helps reduce the levels of cholesterol.

According to Healthline, black tea also lowers blood cholesterol levels and drinking three or more cups of black tea per day is linked to lower risks of heart disease. The ginger and cinnamon in chai have beneficial effects on blood sugar levels.

Healthline also notes that cinnamon may reduce insulin resistance, thus making it easier for your body to use insulin to move sugar out of your blood and into your cells. This may help lower blood sugar levels. The same goes for ginger. Its important to note that this refers to homemade chai, as chai made in cafes are often heavily sweetened, and would cancel out the blood-sugar-lowering benefits of the spices in the chai.

Ginger is well-known for its anti-nausea effects. Ginger is especially effective at reducing nausea during pregnancy. The cinnamon, cloves, black pepper and cardamom in chai have antibacterial properties that help prevent digestive issues caused by bacterial infections.


  • Prep Time: 5

  • Cook Time: 15

  • Total Time: 20 minutes

  • Yield: 1 large mug 

  • Method: stove-top


  1. 5–7 green cardamom pods

  2. 3–4 whole cloves

  3. 1–2 star anise (optional)

  4. 5–7 peppercorns (optional)

  5. 1 cup of water

  6. 2–3 slices ginger (skins are okay)

  7. ½ cinnamon stick - split lengthwise (use your fingers to separate)

  8. 1–2 tablespoons loose leaf black tea (or 1–2 tea bags) 

  9. 1 cup milk of your choice

  10. 2–3 teaspoons (or more or less) sweetener of your choice


  1. Lightly crush cardamom, cloves, star anise and peppercorns, and place in a small pot with 1 cup of water. Add ginger, cinnamon and black tea.  

  2. Bring to a boil. Turn off heat and let seep 10 minutes…. or for several hours. The longer, the more flavour.

  3. Add milk. Bring to a simmer once more, turn off the heat.

  4. Sweeten, taste, strain into a glass.

  5. Feel the love.


  1. I typically use a ratio of ½ water and ½ milk. Some prefer less milk, so feel free to adjust to your taste. You can also make this richer and thicker by using more milk and less water, or even all milk, simmering spices directly in the milk.

  2. You can also make the tea part as strong as you like. Start with one tablespoon loose leaf tea and add more according to your taste.

  3. You can make a big batch of the masala chai (without the milk) and refrigerate for up to 4 days and heat up with the milk and sweetener when ready to serve.

  4. You can add more whole spices and more black tea for an even stronger more concentrated version.

  5. UPDATE: While in Northern India this month, I had this Chai with the addition of a handful of fresh mint leaves (simmering in the chai). ABSOLUTELY Delicious! Give it a try!


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