An alarming number seem to be misinformed about the beverage known as “chai”. This little essay aims to clear up some of the confusion.
Please feel free to share this link with your friends if they’re under the dreadful misapprehension that there is such a thing as “chai latte”.1
The truth about lattes
Latte is simply Italian for “milk”. According to The Internet, caffelatte is a contraction for caffè e latte, or “coffee and milk”, similar to the French café au lait.
A later American corruption repurposed this sensible designation to signify a specific beverage “typically prepared with approximately one third espresso and two-thirds steamed milk, with a layer of foamed milk approximately 5 mm (¼ inch) thick on the top”.2 Absurd, but so it goes.
Notice that neither the Italian original nor the American corruption refer to tea. Lattes remain a beany sort of thing.
(Personally, I like my coffee like I like my goddesses: blacker than sin and stronger than death, but if everyone was as sensible as me, what would I have to rant about?)
There’s no such thing as “chai tea”
Let’s get this straight: chai is Hindi for “tea”. If you have any sense, you don’t say “café coffee”, so why off Earth would you say “chai tea”? Honestly.
I can understand the need for translations on packaging, such as “Chai/Tea/Thé” on a Canadian box of the stuff in order to describe contents in a variety of languages, but actually saying “chai tea” is redundant.
“Chai tea latte” is simply abusive.
If it’s not made from steeped leaves, it’s not chai
That’s right, kids. These utterly ridiculous companies add a syrup3 to hot water and then add “approximately one third espresso and two-thirds steamed milk, with a layer of foamed milk approximately 5 mm (¼ inch) thick on the top”. (Oh dear!)
The base beverage not being coffee or espresso, it’s not a latte, and not being made from tea, it’s not chai. What is this abomination?
The truth about chai
What we call “chai” is properly called masala chai, or “spiced tea”. It’s often made from assam or any strong black tea, and a variety of spices, the amount of which can depend region to region. Common spices can include cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, star anise, peppercorn, cloves, sometimes mint and possibly nutmeg.
The tea is brewed with boiling or near oiling water and 1/4 to 1/2 parts milk. Not steamed. No layers of foam approximately 5 mm thick on top. Just plain ol’ normal milk.
The tea may be sweetened with honey, or sugar.
That, my darlings, is delicious. Try it.
500 Mile Chai has a fantastic organic masal chai spiced with ginger, cloves, carradomon and cinnamon.
Yogi Tea’s Classic Indian Spice is also quite good, though it’s presweetened with stevia, which may or may not be to your taste.
Or, for the more adventurous, the blog Cooking the Ideas has a great recipe for making your own blend of masala chai.