When I was just out of college, I embarked on a post-universty ritual with a group of my friends – we went backpacking through Europe. One thing that sticks out in my mind was how my friend used to order soup while in France.
Every time we would sit down in a cafe, my friend Scott would order the soup. Except that he always called it “French Onion Soup.” Without failure, the waiter would look at us with disgust because in France it is just called “Onion Soup.”
As American’s, we like to label things from a marketing perspective. French Onion Soup sounds more appetizing because the French are known for their culinary achievements. Similarly, we also think that Chai has a distinctively exotic name, but what most people don’t realize is the term “Chai” doesn’t make sense. At least not in the way we are using it.
The Term “Chai” means “Tea,” Literally…
In India, all tea is called Chai. It is the literal translation of the English term “tea.” So when people go to a coffee house and order a Chai tea, they are actually ordering a “tea tea.”
So What? All Chai’s Taste the Same, Don’t They?
This is where Indians become frustrated with Americans. There are multiple styles of tea in India, but the most popular one in America is called Masala Chai. However, what a lot of people do not realize is that there are different variations depending on the region of India you are in.
What are the Different Styles of Chai?
While there are numerous styles of Chai, there are 3 main versions that are considered the most popular:
Masala Chai – The most popular version and the Chai most commonly found in the US. This tea has a black tea base with the predominant flavor being cardamom. Additional flavors generally include cardamom, ginger, fennel and cloves. This style of tea is always served with milk and a sweetener, the most common being sugar.
Kahva Chai – This tea is served in the Kashmir Region and has a base of green tea, specifically gunpowder tea. It is served with crushed almonds, green cardamom, cinnamon and sometimes saffron. This Chai is served without milk and is usually sweetened with sugar.
Sheer Chai or Noon Chai – While these Kashmiri teas have different names, they are made in the same way. While this tea has a black tea base (most of the time) and the same spices as Masala Chai, it has one key difference. Salt. Instead of adding sugar to sweeten this tea, salt is added to make it taste almost like a broth rather than a tea. To finish the tea local people add a bit of baking soda to turn the liquid a distinctive pink color.
These are just three of the different styles of tea you can find in India, all going by the name of Chai. So if you ever go to India, be sure to drop the “tea” when you order a “Chai Tea.” After all, you don’t want to get the same look Scott did when he ordered a French Onion Soup in France, do you?