Having grown up in India, "chai" is hard-wired in my brain to mean steeped black tea and milk. Sugar and spices are optional, though commonly added. However, here in the US, “chai” has morphed into something else. Increasingly, it is presented as black tea with spices like ginger, cinnamon, cloves and cardamom.
Last week I attended the Fancy Food Show held here in San Francisco. The ticket to attend was only $35 and in return you get to sample loads of chocolates, cookies, jams, cheeses, etc for 3 full days. Not a bad deal for your taste buds (maybe not so much for your heart or waist line). As all the specialty tea companies were there too, I took this opportunity to try the “chai” from all these companies.
Let me first say that all these companies are tea experts and use really good, high quality tea to make their products. As you learn more about tea, you start to realize how similar it is to wine. All the teas comes from the same plant (as wine comes from grapes), but every tea is so different as it is hugely impacted by the region, climate, season of harvest, method of picking and processing, etc. etc.
As I went around the floor tasting “chai”, I was less than satisfied with everyone’s interpretation of what “chai” is. Whether it was loose leaf tea or tea bag, as I tasted sample after sample, my brain kept screaming “Where’s the MILK?!”
I used to roll my eyes when I would see “Chai Latte” at Starbucks - it combines 2 words from 2 different languages, is overly sweet and has vanilla. But at least they had the basic idea right – its hot drink with black tea and milk. Or maybe it is the word “Chai Latte” that led people to think that “Chai” is black tea with spices and it becomes a “latte” by adding steamed milk.
I know, I alone cant change how chai is being defined here in the US (even Wikipedia doesn’t do justice). But if you plan to travel to India, just remember when you are offered “chai”, expect to get black tea with milk. If you want it spicy, ask for “masala chai“ and if you are looking for plain black tea, then you should ask for “black tea, no milk, please”.