So, what does chai tea taste like? A warm hug. A lazy Sunday morning. A spark of creativity at exactly the right moment. It’s heady. Complex. Spicy. Soothing.
But if you’re looking for specifics, cinnamon might be a more useful answer. Also, clove. Cardamom. Ginger. Peppercorn. Star anise. But where’s the poetry in that?
There is a wide variety of chai in the world. (Fun fact: "chai" means "tea." So if you say, “chai tea,” you’re really just saying “tea tea.”) Although it is a broad term, if you order a chai most anywhere in the States, you’ll likely receive some type of masala chai, which often includes a combination of the six spices listed above. That is the flavor profile we in the West have come to associate most strongly with chai, and I personally can’t get enough of it.
Often, but not always, the base of a chai is black tea, like in the traditional and ever so tasty Full Moon Chai. In this blend, classic masala spices are enhanced with a hint of vanilla and butternut extracts to produce an intoxicatingly creamy beverage with a touch of sweetness, even before adding milk or sweeteners. (Though it does make a fabulous chai latte.)
Stargazer Caramel Maté Chai uses maté as its base (twist!), a tisane that falls somewhere between black tea and green tea on the caffeination scale. It provides an awesome boost of caffeine without the jitters that some people get from black tea or coffee. This particular maté is toasted and slightly smokey, providing a delightfully unusual base for the conventional chai spices in addition to citrusy orange peel and a splash of caramel extract. A friend of mine tried this tea and said, “It tastes like a warm hug.” I wasn’t lying in that first paragraph! Chai tastes like hugs. And in this case, caramel.
Rainy Day Chai spotlights a rich, earthy base tea called pu-erh. Throw in a combination of chai spices, add a sweet cinnamon oil that calls to mind brown sugar, and the result is a wonderfully balanced sweet and spicy treat you can enjoy rain or shine.
If caffeine is not your thing (or if delicious things *are* your thing), then Coco-Lavender Herbal Chai is for you! That’s right, herbal chai! This blew my mind when I learned about it: a base of rooibos and green rooibos teas married with a mélange of chai spices, real coconut, and fresh lavender. It's safe to enjoy any time of day – no matter your caffeine tolerance – because it’s caffeine-free. This delicious chai miracle is available every summer.
So now that you have a better idea of what chai tastes like, how do you put that information into practice? I have some suggestions.
Firstly, buy some chai! Bolstered by the knowledge you’ve just gained, choose a blend that speaks to you and dive in. If you’re completely new to loose leaf tea, you’ll probably also want to pick up an infuser. In a pinch, I have used a garlic press, and trust me: you’ll want the infuser.
Once you have your chai, experiment with milk and sweeteners. Some blends are, in my opinion, perfect on their own. For instance, I find the Portland Rose City Chai (my all-time favorite!) to be the pinnacle of chai perfection. Blackberry and rose? Yes, thank you! I require nothing else. Others are lovely as-is, but soar to absolute excellence with the addition of a simple sweetener. For my own tastes, the already enjoyable Uplifting Coconut Chai is beautifully offset with frothed milk and a drizzle of honey. It also makes a great iced chai latte. Play around with add-ins to find your ideal balance!
Finally, I can’t address the question “what does chai tea taste like?” and leave out how well it pairs with food. Chai is an amazing complement to an endless variety of snacks, brunch dishes, main dishes, and desserts (see our Recipe Index for all our suggestions. As a strong tea with bold, aromatic flavors that aren’t too sweet on their own, chai stands up well to a host of hearty meals, including this Butternut Squash Tart with Curry Spiced Crust and these Chickpea Chicken Curry Bites.
It’s also a natural accompaniment to any baked good or main dish that features one or more of the six common masala chai spices. Cinnamon twists, rolls, or pandowdy (if you don’t know about pandowdies, check them out – delicious!); cardamom bread, scones, or ice cream (hello, hot tea and cold treat!); ginger carrot jam or gingerbread coffee cake... I could go on, but I imagine you’re now starving, and I don’t want to tease you.
I will leave you with one final thought: Not only is chai great with food, it’s also great in food. You can cook with chai and it’s awesome. Try Sweet and Spicy Chai Rice Pudding, Chai Monkey Bread, or Chai Chocolate Chip Scones. You will fall in love. Or try it as a marinade or rub with your favorite meat and take your dinner to a whole new level.
Whether you’re eating or drinking it, sipping it hot or iced, enjoying it plain or sweetened, chai is sure to be steeped in strong, aromatic flavors to delight and excite your senses every time. Enjoy!