“There is something in the nature of tea that leads us into a world of quiet contemplation of life.” Lin Yutang wrote these words in “The Importance of Living” and I believe that they ring very true. The simple ceremony of drinking tea can be almost like sipping in a moment of peace to balance the chaos of the world, and a very healing connection with our mind and body. But this isn’t just an imagined whimsical idea. In the ancient courts Siam and India, the principle of mind, body and consciousness came through in the holistic healing art of Ayurveda. Legend has it that a clever king used Ayurvedic principles to brew the very healing concoction known as masala chai.
In the Hindi language, chai is the word for “tea” and masala refers to a mixture of spices. Though a bit different than the original royal concoction, masala chai typically has a variant combination of cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, ginger and black pepper. According to Ayurvedic principles, these spices are considered to be “sattvic” to the system, which helps in calming and vitalizing the body and clarifying the mind. Ayurvedic belief that poor digestion contributes to a variety of physical ailments is reflected in the masala chai ingredients, which combined stimulate, balance and support digestion. Each ingredient also carries its own unique health properties. Cardamom, with its heady sweet and savory flavor, is beneficial to the lungs, kidneys and heart, and is a great mood elevator. Cinnamon is known to increase circulation, increase awareness and vitality, and reduce fatigue. Cloves, a native Indonesian spice, are typically used for their pain relieving and antiseptic properties, where black pepper, the master of spices, supports circulation and metabolism. Ginger, a medicinal powerhouse in itself, is a strong digestive aid as well as a circulation and immune booster. Combined, these elements make for a very powerful medicinal brew.
Interestingly, the original Ayurvedic masala chai recipes did not originally contain caffeine. In 1835, the British set up tea plantations in Assam, India, and eventually the black tea found its way into the masala chai recipe. Because black tea was so expensive, the chai wallahs, or tea vendors, used milk and sugar within the brew to keep the costs down so it could be consumed by the general public. It is this masala chai variation that has become popular globally, and though the standard spices are typically the same, there is no lack of exciting and unique variations of chai recipes. In Kashmir, for example, instead of black tea, gunpowder green tea is used, and still in other regions, caffeine-free rooibos is used as a refreshing alternative to the heavier black tea recipes. And even though it was not originally constructed with black tea, the modern variations still hold true with the Ayurvedic healing principles, as black tea has a plethora of antioxidants than help to lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and promote heart health!
Another great part about masala chai is also the fact that it can be consumed strictly as a water-brewed infusion or it can be prepared with milk, soy milk or other non-dairy alternatives. You can drink it either sweetened with honey or sugar, or drink it plain. As a die-hard coffee drinker, I have found that it is not difficult for me to enjoy a cup of chai because it is such a satisfyingly different treat. Though black tea contains significantly less caffeine than my standard coffee fare, I am never lacking in beverage-snob satisfaction with a cup of chai because it is such a richly satisfying drink. The fact that it has so many wonderful properties is an even bigger bonus.
So how to get your hands on your own cup of vitalizing goodness? If you’re an at-home spice master, you can experiment with your own combination of masalas at home, and brew them with your choice of dairy (or non-dairy) products. If you’re not a recipe ninja, you can also make your way to Liquid Planet and sample the many varieties of chais they offer. From their signature Mumbai Chai (which is available in retail loose leaf and sachets, as well as served as a sweetened latte version behind the bar), to the entire line of Tipus Chai, there is truly a chai for every occasion and palate. And yes, for those who prefer decaffeinated or sugar-free options, there is even a chai for you! Sip by healing sip, you can enjoy your own revitalizing chai and take in a quiet world of contemplation, even if it only lasts until you finish the cup.