Masala chai versus chai latté

Every coffee shop worth its salt has chai latté on the menu, but what is the story behind this apparently new-fangled drink?

Masala chai versus chai latté


Chai lattés are all the rage these days it seems. However, unlike half-fat-grande-soy-mochaccinos-with-cream and the like, this hot beverage is not some new-fangled innovation that has reached us from the sweet-toothed culinary desert of America. Chai lattés may still be available in three different sizes of branded coffee-shop mug, but this drink has come to us from the other side of the world entirely - India in fact.

‘Chai latté’ is essentially a westernised version of one of India’s national drinks: masala chai. ‘Chai’ is the word for ‘tea’ all over India. Ask an Urdu speaker from the North, or a Tamil speaker from the South, or a Hindi speaker from just about anywhere for ‘3 chais’ and you’ll essentially get three chai lattés.

The name chai latté that we know the drink by over here makes perfect sense: chai meaning tea, and latté meaning milk based. However, the Indian ‘chai’, and the Italian ‘latté ‘, have been combined to name a drink that they probably don’t drink in Italy, and which is called something else in India. So what is the history of the drink that is now available in everywhere from Starbucks to country cafes?

Since ancient times, tea has been regarded as a medicinal drink across the Indian sub-continent, with many health benefits. The spices added to tea in masala chai, such as cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and star anise are all known to have great health benefits in ayurvedic medicine:

  • Cardamom is said to contain oils that help digestion.
  • Star anise, too, aids digestion.
  • Ginger boosts the immune system.
  • Cinnamon contains antioxidants.
  • Tea leaves themselves contain a healthy and moderate amount of caffeine, as well as antioxidants.

The sweet and milky chai lattés we get in high street coffee shops today, with their indulgent, calorie-laden attributes are bizarrely derived from a drink that was specifically consumed for its health benefits! During the 19th century, when the British East India Company was operating in India, the company began to commercially grow tea in the now famous tea growing area of Assam. To boost the trade and consumption of tea, the British encouraged Indian companies to take tea breaks during their working days. However, tea vendors or chai wallahs, tended to brew their chai with milk and spices, and due to all the other flavours in their brews, used less leaf tea than the British would have liked. However, until this day, masala chai is an incredibly popular drink in and around India, and judging by the availability of chai lattés here, it’s clearly becoming more the Englishman’s cup of tea too.

Realistically, however healthy the spices and tea-leaves that go in to a masala chai are, a cup of full-fat sugary milk is never going to make it as a 100% health drink. A chai latté, made from chai latté powder and milk, or chai latté syrup and milk will undoubtedly hold even less nutrtional value. However, the chai latté is none the less a drink that draws on an ancient heritage, and just as true coffee lovers often prefer proper, strong Italian coffees to a mug of instant, chai latté enthusiasts just might discover a new love in the form of authentic masala chai. 

Indeed, outside of the mainstream coffee chains and stylish independent cafes, it is entirely possible to sample authentic masala chai in England. Not all Indian restaurants serve chai, but in areas which are famous for their Indian food such as Brick Lane in London, or Wilmslow Road (‘the curry mile’ in Manchester), you will come across restaurants that serve it. The London chain, Masala Zone serve masala chai, the Northern chain, Akbar’s sever a similar milky tea drink, called Dood Pati, and the international chain, Tiffin Bites, of which there are several branches all over England, serve their own blend of masala chai.

Just as you probably prefer certain coffee shops for certain drinks, masala chai will be served differently in each restaurant. There is no single recipes for the masala that is used to make masala chai: some will used nutmeg, some won’t; some will use more cinnamon than others; some might use a pinch of pepper as their secret ingredient.

Whilst masala chai is in principle the same as chai latté, one thing that unites every varying blend of masala chai from every coffee shop chai latté, is the fact that a blend of real spices is used. Masala chai is always made from one of these secret spice blends, that have been measured and ground to perfection into the maker’s preferred blend, and not made from a pre-mixed “chai” powder. That’s not to say a chai latté on a cold day isn’t the perfect warming tonic with which to fill your mug - it's a delicious drink in its own right, but if you do get the chance to try traditional masala chai, take it.

**Written by:** Emily Boyd