A Brief History Of Masala Chai

by Madhulika Dash - Jul 9, 2016 12:02 PM +05:30 IST
A Brief History Of Masala ChaiImage Credit: Alekhya Das/flickr
  • In ancient India, tea was a brewable, herbal drink.

    Camellia sinensis, a tea shrub, was discovered in Assam in 1823.

    The British lost their tea market of China, tea became the new gold.

It is often said that India’s best produce is for the West. Unfortunately, in most cases, be it the finest tea or saffron, it turns out to be true.

Yet, there are a few exceptions to this rule. Like the CTCs (Cut, tear, curl), the concept that made tea not only affordable, but turned an entire generation (and generations thereafter) into ritual tea drinkers, the one beverage that did it all (and does not credit the Brits or Chinese for its discovery) is masala chai, or as some would call the chai latte or the chai tea.

India’s CTCs are almost custom-made for taste – strong, flavoured, aromatic or all three together. According to experts who have worked with some of the top Chai Patti companies, CTC blends that Indians consume are high in quality and can go up to a couple of thousand rupees depending upon the blend of leaves, buds and granules (leaves give the aroma, buds the health, granules and dust the colour and strength). The best of the CTCs is designed and sold in Maharashtra and Gujarat – states that have not only designed and given the modern iteration of masala chai with milk but have the most evolved (and demanding) palate when it comes to their favourite cuppa.

But how did masala chai come about?

In ancient India, chai was not the term used for the tea we know today, but anything that had herbs and could be brewed, much like the traditional kada. And though the difference between a chai and kada is not only the brewing time but also the spices used, the story of how the first cup of tea came about has its versions.

Chai used spices that were associated more with aroma, was used in Soma and was brewed for lesser time whereas kada had herbs, plants and flowers used for health benefits.

While one story goes that the masala chai was developed by accident when a Buddhist monk (most likely Gautama Buddha himself) on his way to China, observing the ritual of non-sleep, chewed on a few wild leaves and felt rejuvenated, many believe it was an ancient king (most likely Harshavardhana, the guardian of Nalanda University) who developed it to remain alert during long court hours.

There is, of course, a third legend that says Sanjivini booti (and its concoction), which brought a comatose Lakshman alive, is the first chai. The common factor that lends credence to this story is that the shrub that finds mention in each of the tales is akin to Camellia sinensis, a tea shrub that was discovered by Robert Bruce and his brother Charles in Assam in 1823.

Britain’s Prince William, Duke of Cambridge (C) and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge speak with an Indian tea-grower during a visit to a village tea garden in Kaziranga, Assam on 13 April 2016. (BIJU BORO/AFP/Getty Images)
Britain’s Prince William, Duke of Cambridge (C) and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge speak with an Indian tea-grower during a visit to a village tea garden in Kaziranga, Assam on 13 April 2016. (BIJU BORO/AFP/Getty Images)

Such was the fondness for chai back in the day that Emperor Ashoka too made it a part of his various peace treaties and court culture, a habit that eventually percolated down to common people. This is a fact corroborated by the account of Dutch traveller, Jan Huyghen van Linschoten Jan, who visited India in the early years of 1500. He writes:

“Indians ate the leaves as a vegetable with garlic and oil and boiled the leaves to make a brew.”

Even during the reign of Ahom King, Laal Chaa (made of special wild leaves grown in Assam) was a welcome drink much like water today.

Which brings us to the question: when and where was milk added to tea?

According to tea experts:

“The first iteration of masala chai was with milk and developed by travellers and traders mostly likely from Gujarat and Maharashtra and Bengal, people who had easy access to spices and good quality milk.”

The spices were added to flavour the milk. This tea was had post the 11 o’clock breakfast. But with growing trade, invasions and colonisation, it soon became the go-to drink, at least for the office bearers (and workers), to sustain a rather long day.

Two different kinds of masala chai were prevalent till the 1830s: milk brewed with spices in main India and spiced tea liquor up in North East. The big change happened in 1833, when the British lost their tea market of China, and had to look at India; premium quality tea was, in fact, the other gold that Britain took away from India.

While Indians were employed to work and man tea gardens, tea remained an elitist brew with the English introducing the concept of afternoon tea with the Darjeeling variety. Curiously, even in Calcutta, while the concept of tea time came into existence – thanks to the Raj – the brews people wanted were of the herbed chai (old style) or hot spiced milk with a sweet or savoury toast.

Many say that initially, the leftovers of dusty and darkened tea leaves, which were sold at a lower cost to street vendors, were mixed with water and added to milk, leading to the creation of the regular chai. But it was not until William McKercher, who invented the CTC (Cut, tear, curl) method of making tea, that India’s favourite brew went cheaper, and tea became affordable. With Iranian cafes and Coffee Houses putting it on the menu, it also became the brew for intellectuals. The CTC technology made it so cheap that it became a political ally in every meeting, dharna and even discussions and speeches. Even big political meetings had to have tea; Darjeeling Premium or CTC black, it did not matter.

And just like that the “leftover leaf” became India’s national drink, albeit differently in different regions. While those in Calcutta kept it simple by brewing the leaf in water, adding sugar and milk, others adopted it as per their local flavours. Assam still had it plain, Odisha with a little salt and pepper and Gujarat added it to their milk for that nice colour.

The idea of masala tea, however, came post-Independence, when in an attempt to sell “the leftover teas,” the Gujarati spice mix came handy. Experts say that people suddenly realised that the tea tasted infinitely better when combined with spices, water and a little more than a dash of milk. The slight apprehension remaining was taken care of by free samples. And soon, masala chai became the favourite brew of the nation.

Of course, over the years, the concept of this ancient brew has been used cleverly by tea companies to bring in expensive brands under the banner of CTC. Nevertheless, masala tea as we know it remains a drink that everyone across the country continues to crave for.

Madhulika Dash is a writer with over 13 years of experience writing features from tech to cars to health. She is also a seasoned food appreciator who writes on Indian restaurants and cuisines across different platforms. She has also been on the food panel of MasterChef India Season 4.
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