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What Is Chai Tea? A Look At One of India’s Beloved Traditions

Chai tea in a terra cotta cup


Along with the rise of small coffee shops and the ever-expanding specialty coffee subculture, there seems to be an uptick in the number of chai connoisseurs. But what is chai? What is a chai tea latte? 

This journal dives into the practice of making, consuming and serving chai in Indian culture. Keep reading to find out why chai is so important in India and how to make the signature Swahlee chai. 

Table of Contents

  • What is Chai? 

  • Is Saying “Chai Tea” the Same Thing as Saying “Tea Tea”? 

  • Is Chai Healthier Than Coffee?  

  • What Is the Difference Between Chai and Tea? 

  • Peace, Connection, Hospitality: Why Chai Is So Important in Indian Culture

  • Chai Etiquette

  • How To Practice the Art of Chai Time 

  • How To Make Chai: Swahlee’s Signature Chai Recipe 


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What Is Chai? 

Chai is a beverage consumed in many parts of the world but concentrated in Asia, particularly India. Chai is traditionally served hot and is made from a blend of spices and tea with milk and sugar. The spices used in Chai are traditionally thought to improve the health of the person drinking it.  

What Is a Chai Tea Latte?

Often touted as an ideal fall latte, the chai tea latte sometimes raises some confusion. Is there a difference between chai tea and a chai tea latte? Technically, yes.

By definition, a latte is steamed milk poured over espresso. A traditional cup of Indian chai has neither steamed milk nor espresso. So the only true chai latte would be what is usually referred to as a dirty chai — a latte made with chai tea/flavoring, espresso, and steamed milk. 

Indian chai is made by boiling the ingredients in a pot, so there is no steamed milk involved. 

By technical definitions, most of the chai tea lattes ordered in the US are not actually lattes. However, latte has become a sort of “catch-all” phrase for any beverage in a coffee shop that contains steamed milk (or, in the case of an iced latte, cold milk poured over espresso). 

Is Saying “Chai Tea” the Same Thing as Saying “Tea Tea”? 

If you’ve ever talked with a “coffee snob” or barista, you may have heard that referring to “chai tea” is the same as saying “tea tea” and this is technically correct. Chai is the Hindi word for tea so, technically, saying “chai tea” would be like saying “agua water”. 

However, especially in Western spheres such as the US or the UK, chai is a specific type of tea beverage with distinct flavors. If you walked into most coffee shops and ordered a cup of tea you would likely be asked what kind you wanted and, in most cases, “chai tea please” would be an appropriate response. 

Especially in India, chai tea is a beverage made with a specific process and specific flavorings. So, if you’re in the West, it is perfectly okay to order a Chai tea latte. 

Model sipping chai tea while wearing our cotton loungewear for women

Is Chai Healthier Than Coffee?  

Is chai good for you? 

Both coffee and chai have distinct health benefits and both can have a healthy place in your daily routine. Thanks to the spices and other ingredients used in chai, it is incredibly healthful and the spices' positive effects may outweigh the coffee's properties. 

Moderate coffee consumption — less than five cups a day — has been linked to a reduced risk of multiple diseases and illnesses such as type 2 diabetes and some forms of cancer. Of course, too much coffee is not good for you. 

The same is true of chai. Since chai often contains milk and sugar, you should keep those ingredients in mind when deciding how much you will consume. 

The health value of your chai depends on the type of chai you’re drinking. While masala chai tends to be the most popular type in the West, there are many unique types of chai specific to various regions of India. 

Whether you’re from the West or you’re from India, there are many types of chai to know:

  • Doodh chai — tea with milk.

  • Masala chai — tea steeped with spices and added milk and sugar.

  • Red tea — chai without milk.

  • Matka Chai (tandoori chai) — doodh chai served in a clay cup and fired in a tandoor to give the chai a unique, smokey flavor.

  • Kesar Masala Chai — masala chai with saffron.

  • Namkeen chai (jya chai)  — red tea with rock salt and/or lemon. 

While all the types are delicious and worth exploring, we wanted to focus on masala chai for this Journal. 

Masala chai is intentionally made with spices that promote health and wellness. Some common chai spices — and a few of their traditionally respected properties — include:

  • Ginger — Good for improving digestion, boosting the immune system, and much more. 

  • Black peppercorns – Known for their anti-inflammatory properties and antioxidants. 

  • Cardamom pods — Possibly linked to improved breathing and weight loss. 

  • Star Anise — Thought to have anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, and anti-bacterial qualities. 

  • Cloves — High in antioxidants. Clove may help reduce the chance of developing diabetes, heart disease, and even some cancers. 

  • Cinnamon sticks — Support blood sugar health, reduce inflammation, and reduce the chances of heart disease. 

  • Tez Patta (Indian bay leaf) — Supports blood sugar health, aids in digestion, relieves pain, antifungal. 

Even if each of these spices doesn’t do everything it is said to do, there is no dispute that each has at least some healing or healthful properties. If you’re feeling under the weather, there is a strong chance that a good cup of chai will help you get back to feeling like yourself. 

What Is the Difference Between Chai and Tea? 

In India, the ingredients in chai vary from type to type but one ingredient is always present: black tea. In most cases, for tea to be considered chai, it must contain black tea. Tea is simply hot water poured over any mix of tea leaves, herbs, flowers, or spices. 

A cup of chai next to our Peace Silk Pillowcase

Peace, Connection, Hospitality: Why Chai Is So Important in Indian Culture

In India, chai is much more than just a drink. It is a culture. 

From Chai Wallahs selling terra-cotta cups of chai on the street to simmering pots in homes, chai is a symbol of rest and hospitality. 

All over India, regardless of their societal position, people drink chai. Whether served from a humble man’s home in the village or sipped by a room full of the leading men and women of India, everyone enjoys a cup of chai and all that it represents. 

Friendships form over steaming cups and government officials make massive decisions in chai-scented board rooms. 

Chai is almost always offered to guests in a home — it extends hospitality and encourages amiability. 

It is not uncommon for companies to take time out of a work day for group tea time. A warm cup of chai with a crispy biscuit and some light-hearted conversation is often just what is needed in the middle of a long workday. 

At Swahlee, we break every morning at 10 for tea time. Our Production Assistant, Rimika, is the in-house chai expert. Each morning, she makes a pot of chai for all the staff to enjoy. We’ve found that taking a short break to spend time together talking and laughing helps build community and boost friendships in the workshop.

Chai Etiquette

Should you find yourself in India enjoying a cup of chai with a new friend, there are a couple of things you should know. 

  • You should use your right hand to hold your cup. In India, the left hand is considered dirty so you never want to handle food with it. 

  • If you are offered a cup of tea it is okay to turn it down but some more traditional hosts may take this as a slight affront. Typically, the best option is to gratefully accept the chai. 

  • If you have a dairy allergy, you can always ask for “red tea” instead. This is simply chai made without the milk. 

  • In many parts of India, chai is used to signal the end of a visit. This isn’t a hard and fast rule and your host may wish you to stay longer but in most cases, it is appropriate to leave around ten minutes after you finish your cup. 

  • In some parts of India, it is considered polite to turn down the first offer of tea and then accept the second. 

  • Some regions observe the tradition of leaving a small bit of food on your plate when you are finished, to show that you are satisfied. Consuming all of it could indicate to your host that you are still hungry, which would be an insult to their hospitality. 

How To Practice the Art of Chai Time 

While a part of the fabric of Indian culture, chai time is not restricted only to this beautiful country — or even just to Asia. Taking time out of your day for a warming cup of chai is a great way to intentionally slow down and build rhythms of rest into your routine. 

If you want to incorporate this beautiful pastime into your life, here are a few places to start: 

  • Get a tea set — You’ll want a fun tea set with small cups. You don’t need a teapot since chai is usually served straight from the stove. 

  • Find a good tray — Once you fill the cups, you need a way to transport all of them to your waiting guests. In India, this is done with a tray. 

  • Make sure you have the right spices and tea on hand — Good chai requires good tea and spices. 

  • Keep some of your favorite biscuits in the cupboard — You might know them as cookies or crackers, but in India, they are biscuits. Keep some around to serve alongside the chai.  

  • Be hospitable — The core focus of serving chai is hospitality and making sure the guests know they are honored and cared for. 

Chai tea being made at Swahlee

How To Make Chai: Swahlee’s Signature Chai Recipe 

In India, every family or group has its own chai recipe. It might have the same ingredients as the neighbors, but they might boil it a little longer or add a bit more of this or that. 

At Swahlee, we are no different — we’ve also developed our own chai recipe. 

Swahlee chai is lighter on the spices but still offers a flavorful, creamy, warming cup of chai. 

At Swahlee, we love how our daily chai time brings the team together and gives us all a chance to unwind and enjoy one another’s company. We make it a priority to put our people first and taking time to sip chai together is just one of the many ways we do so. 

You can find excellent chai spices at your local Indian grocery store. If you don’t have one near you, your grocery store should have most of them. 

A warm cup of Swahlee chai pairs perfectly with a Swahlee Rest Collection loungewear set. 

A sachet of chai spices alongside a cute mug makes a sweet and simple gift — perfect for wrapping up in our sustainable, reusable Gift Wrapping Cloth Set


Swahlee's chai recipe


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