Word nerds and tea purists will be quick to remind you that “chai” means “tea,” making the phrase “chai tea” redundant. Linguistically, they are absolutely correct. However, they would probably be disappointed to order “chai” at a coffee shop or Indian restaurant and receive a cup of Earl Grey tea or jasmine green tea. In the US, we have come to associate the word “chai” with a very specific type of spiced tea rooted in Indian culture.
Whether you love chai or have never tried it, it’s good to know the spices that make this warm, creamy beverage so special. Let’s dig into what spices are in chai tea.
Spice is Life
There are a lot of different ways to spice up a cup of tea, and a lot of ways to flavor chai drinks. For example, Kashmiri chai is a pink beverage made by combining gunpowder green tea, milk, salt, and baking powder. Adrak ki chai is a ginger tea made with cream, strong black tea, and ginger.
The type of chai most commonly served as chai in the United States is masala chai. It, too, is flexible in terms of spices and flavors, but there are six ingredients that are pretty consistently used in masala chai.
Cardamom is a versatile spice that grows in hot, humid climates such as southern India, Guatemala, and Tanzania. It adds distinct flavor to both sweet and savory dishes. It is a main ingredient in curry powder and provides a unique edge to fruity and creamy desserts, and it shines in our rose chai tea with blackberry. For a taste of cardamom outside the context of chai, try our vanilla black tea with cardamom.
Most people in the west are familiar with the flavor of cinnamon. It is strong, spicy, and a little bit sweet. Maybe you’ve had it on your oatmeal or in a pastry. In chai tea, the spice serves the dual purpose of giving the cup a kick while still keeping it sweet. If you’re a big fan of the cinnamon in chai, you may want to try our super-spicy hot cinnamon spice tea.
This classic chai spice is responsible for that slightly numbing tingle you feel on your tongue, thanks to a compound called eugenol that works as a natural anesthetic. Cloves are actually the flower buds of an evergreen tree that grows all over the world and it used for its warming effects. You've probably tasted them in a holiday ham or seen them studded into an orange to form a fragrant pomander. They are a beautiful addition to our vanilla chai tea with butternut.
Fennel or Star Anise
What spices are in chai tea that give it that almost savory, licorice flavor? Usually, a traditional chai will have fennel seed, star anise, or some combination of both of these. Combined with the sweeter spices and steeped in warming cream, these spices give the perfect balance to a cup of chai. Our sweet and spicy tea is a cozy, rich, and earthy pu’erh-based chai with the perfect balance of star anise, ginger, and cinnamon.
A flavor-packed root, ginger also does double duty, tasting great in both sweet and savory recipes. It brings a bright, spicy flavor to the chai that is absolutely essential to that full-bodied, rich chai experience. If you feel like your chai needs a little bit more ginger than it already has, you can always add more with our organic ginger tea. The only ingredient is organic ginger, so it’s a great as an add-in, or plain.
Pepper may seem like a strange addition to a creamy tea beverage, but much of the masala chai you drink includes it. Black peppercorns round out the blend with an earthy yet pungent flavor. They create an utterly unique experience that brings chai lovers back again and again. Experience them for yourself in our coconut chai tea, which is excellent hot or iced.
Even though these six ingredients are fairly standard for masala chai, there is still plenty of room for variations and creativity. For example, chai doesn’t have to be black tea-based. Our yerba mate chai is a caramel-y, spicy treat without any tea leaves (but still with a caffeine kick!).
Cool, fall nights are a perfect time to try a new blend of chai tea. Why not invest in a bag or two and keep your mug full all the way into winter!