This is a sort of confession, sort of conversion and definite personal surprise. It’s not “about” chais but offers suggestions on how to discover them for yourself. Chai is a style of tea, rather than a precise specification or standardized set of ingredients.
That’s why I am writing this with the egocentric “I” instead of the neutral third person. Chai is very much a personal turn-on or turn-off, mainly dependent on your fondness for lots of milk and lots more of sugar versus liking bold, spicy and full plain tea. So, my use of “I” is to stress that there is no best chai and it’s for “you” to choose. This blog is intended to help you navigate.
My confession is that as a devotee of traditional teas and coffee-indifferent, chai long fell into my category of Not For Me and chai latte into the Never in This Lifetime one. Darjeelings, sencha, Mao Feng, Nilgiri, Keemun, just about any and every white tea, kukicha, puehr, jasmine pearls, high mountain, Alishan, Uji… Paradise found. But not that milky, spiced tea overloaded with sweetener.
The conversion came once I started to get a sense of what “chai” really covers (and also began to use really fresh Indian spices in my limited cooking). I recognized that choosing chais rests on distinguishing between “X chai” and “Chai X.” There is a wide gulf between chai tea, chai latte, family masala chai, and specialty masala chai.
It is easy to get a wrong or incomplete impression of your options if you try one and assume it is representative of chais in general. Here’s a perhaps stereotypical summary of the four distinctions.