Chai: Spiced goodness in a cup
In the years leading up to the early 19th century, citizens around the globe relied on herbs and natural remedies to meet their primary health care needs. Early New Zealanders used a variety of native leafy bushes and plants for medicinal purposes.
However, in the 1930s the power of herbs lost its lustre. Consumers sought to replace time-enduring folk remedies with modern synthetic drugs, which are designed to reduce symptoms rather than correct the underlying cause of a health problem.
Herbal teas in New Zealand regained popularity in the late-1990s when Healtheries, a company known for its natural stone-ground flours, launched its first functional tea range. Since then rising consumer interest in natural and herbal products has fuelled the launch of new companies providing their own blends for ‘self-care.’ But it has taken some time for chai to find its place in the wellness tea category and there is, perhaps, still some scepticism in the marketplace as to what it actually is.
What is chai?
The word ‘chai’ is derived from the Hindi word for ‘tea.’
‘Legend has it that an Indian Maharaja concocted a recipe comprising herbs and spices in a quest to create a healing elixir,’ says Ayurvedic practitioner and tea blender, Fehreen Ali. ‘After that, the recipe was modified for use in the ancient practice of ‘Ayurveda’ holistic medicine. This earliest chai (named ‘kadha’) did not contain tea, but rather was a combination of plant roots, bark, seeds and spices, taken both hot and cold.’
‘It was only when the British set up tea plantations in Assam, India (to break the Chinese monopoly) that tea leaves made its way into the ancient ‘kadha’, laying the foundations of the masala chai as we know it now. But its popularity was restricted in India until the 1960s, when a mechanised form of tea production called ‘CTC’ (or ‘Crush, Tear, Curl’) made black tea affordable for Indians,” Fehreen explains.
A quick look on the web and it is evident regional, local and household preferences determine the style of chai. ‘It is the choice of ingredients and preparation that defines its efficacy. Usually, the recipe involves black tea, pungent spices, sugar, milk and water. But blends with green tea – even white tea – are becoming more prevalent.’
To be clear – spices and herbs are not the same thing. ‘Most of us use the terms ‘spice’ and ‘herb’ interchangeably. Herbs, however, are traditionally obtained from the leaves of herbaceous (non-woody) plants, while spices can be obtained from roots, flowers, fruits, seeds or bark and tend to be strong in flavour. The most commonly used spices in chai include cardamom, ginger, cinnamon and cloves. It is the rejuvenative and detoxifying effect of combining them together that is at the core of their medicinal value,’ says Fehreen.
What are the health benefits of chai?
There has always been a great controversy about whether green tea or masala chai is better for the body. While the debate rages on, there has been news that athletes drink masala chai to help them better deal with the pain, inflammation and fatigue they experience after a gruelling session. So what is it that this unique drink offers?
Cardamom is noted as a safe and effective warming digestive aid. Some believe it can also stimulate the mind and provide cognitive clarity.
Ginger is another healing spice. It is excellent at combatting gas and also offers antifungal, antibacterial, antiviral and anti-nausea effects. In addition there is evidence that ginger stimulates the circulatory system.
Cinnamon has been used for hundreds of years as a perfume, but recent investigation points to potential benefits in boosting energy, controlling blood sugar and as a sleep aide. It is believed to have a synergistic effect with other spices.
Folklore recommends clove as a natural remedy for a toothache and as an effective agent to combat bad breath. But cloves are also energising and can restore heat in the body.
The tea plant or ‘Camellia Sinensis,’ which is part of chai in the form of black, green or white tea, is also known for having tremendous antioxidant capabilities. Research into tea also links it with increased immune function and cardiovascular benefits.
‘In India, mostly CTC black tea is used for its bold, tannic flavour that complements chai’s sweet, creamy and spicy notes,’ Fehreen says. ‘However, in Western countries high-grade single estate leaves such as Assam (from India) or Kenilworth from Sri Lanka is becoming more common.’
How do you prepare chai?
It doesn’t take much searching on the web to find a range of delicious chai blends to steep and sip. Some blends favour traditional method of preparation (in a pot) and others only require boiling water and a three minute steep. The choice to add milk is yours.
Do keep in mind that to have maximum health effects, the spices must be fresh. The inclusion of excessive amounts of sweetness will reduce this potential powerhouse of a beverage into a guilty pleasure. So don’t be afraid to ask tea merchants for a list of ingredients or a sample before committing yourself to purchasing a 100g bag.
‘Chai has no stiff upper lip rituals and improvisation is allowed (in fact, it’s encouraged),’ says Fehreen. ‘But when you make chai, do make sure you steep and sip slowly. There’s no need to gulp chai down quickly like medicine.’
The future of chai
Increasingly, chai is taking many forms including chai syrups, chai powders, tea bags, and countless chai blends. In addition, chai lovers can purchase caffeine-free blends, made from South African rooibos instead of tea. An interesting example is ‘Hindu Holiday’ made from rooibos, cardamom, cassia, and spicy ginger adorned with garlands of rose, jasmine and marigold petals.
Chai is also now an ingredient. It is often found in the ever-popular chai latte, delivered either hot or iced or as ‘dirty chai’ (a standard chai with an espresso shot). And don’t forget eggnogs, exotic cocktails, desserts, and other foods!
‘Chai has many formats that are becoming increasingly accepted,’ says Fehreen. ‘At the end of the day, there’s much to be gained from the collective good of tea and spice. To drink chai is to relax, restore and revitalise.’
‘Healing never tasted so good.’
For more information on the author of this article, visit www.revoluzzion.co.nz.
Image / Supplied by Felicia Stewart