In much of the word, the word Chai, simply means tea. In the Western world especially. in North America. chai, (rhymes with "high") has come to mean a tea brewed with spices. steamed or warm milk. and something sweet, such as honey, sugar, or flavored syrup. In India. where the drink originates, it is known as masala chai, and wherever people congregate, you'll find turbaned tea vendors-chai wallahs-selling their own particular chai brew in disposable, unglazed, clay cups or, less romantically, Styrofoam cups.
On the menus of coffee stores, cafes, and carts, chai has joined the club of chic hot drinks and shares equal billing with lattes and other steamed-milk beverages. As a morning riser or afternoon pick-me-up, chai's peppery and refreshing taste is a great energizer. A palate cleanser, chai has none of coffee's aftertaste.
Masala is an Indian word that refers to a combination of popular Indian spices used in the subcontinent's cuisine. Most of the time, the spice mixture is made by the cooks themselves for their own use. Traditionally, at least four and usually more-spices are combined from a constellation of choices that includes cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, cloves, pepper, allspice, fennel, and star anise.
In India, masala chai is made with black tea. The street tea sellers use low-grade black teas or tea dust because they're cheap to buy and the strong flavor holds up to the seasonings and milk. While black tea is the traditional tea used in chai, green teas and herbs are also becoming popular, especially in North America.
One of the reasons for the delightful taste of chai is the milk. Whole milk gives the richest, most balanced taste, but many chai lovers use condensed milk or unsweetened evaporated milk. Lactose-intolerant or vegan appetites like their chai with soy or rice milk. In India, they may use water buffalo milk. Any of these work well, but do stay away from insipid fat-free dairy products.
With great-tasting chai beverages readily available in coffee shops and supermarkets, as well as dry mixes and recipes (see page 64) you can stir up at home, there's no excuse to keep this marvelous drink too far from your lips.