History & Culture

What is Chai? | Masala Chai Recipe

Where does chai originate from and how do you make your own masala chai?

Chai is considered the national drink of India. Promoted by street and train vendors (known as chai wallahs) in the 20th century,1 masala chai became one of the most popular beverages in India. Here’s the traditional recipe, and steps to make your own homemade masala chai.

The Origin of Chai: Where Does Chai Tea Come From?

The origin of the word chai, meaning ‘tea’ in Hindi, is derived from the Sinitic Chinese word cha, (茶) for tea.2 Contrary to the Western spicy take of chai tea, chai in Hindi actually means black tea with milk and sugar. Whereas masala tea is black tea with milk and sugar, infused with aromatic and basic spices that are often misnamed in the West as ‘chai tea’. 

The flavour and colour of chai comes from the tea leaves’ tannin content, along with the stimulant caffeine.1 The recipes of masala chai tea vary across the regions and also among families. 

Undisturbed tea plants can grow for over 1000 years. The largest known tea plant is found at Mt. Dahei in Monghai, Xishuangbanna.  The tree is 14.7m tall, with a trunk circumference of 2.9m, and an estimated age of 1700 years old.3

Homemade Masala Chai Recipe

There are several variations of masala chai depending on the preference of spices one would like to use. The most common spices used in homemade masala chai recipes are fresh ginger, cinnamon, black peppercorn, star anise, green cardamom pods and cloves. Personally, I use only aromatic spices such as cloves, cinnamon and cardamom pods in my own masala chai recipe.

Masala Chai Ingredients

  • 100 ml milk
  • 300 ml water
  • 4 whole cloves
  • 2 crushed green cardamom pods
  • 50 ml sugar
  • Black tea (I prefer Ceylon tea)

Steps to Make Your Homemade Masala Chai

  1. In a saucepan, add water, sugar and the spices. Simmer over medium heat for 5 minutes.
  2. Add the tea leaves and bring to a boil
  3. Lastly add milk bringing it to boil once again and remove from the stove
  4. Strain into mugs and serve

This is based on the traditional chai wallah recipe, found below.

Chai Wallahs’ Masala Chai Recipe4


  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1 cup of water
  • 2 heaping tsp of black tea
  • 5 cardamom whole pods (slightly smashed)
  • 2 ground cloves
  • 1-inch ginger
  • 2 to 3 tsp sugar

In a small saucepan, boil the water, then add the cloves, ginger and tea. After a minute, add the milk, sugar and cardamom and boil until the milk froths. Strain and serve.

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  1. Hasimoto, M. (1985). The origin of the tea plant. JARQ. Japan Agricultural Research Quarterly, 19(1), 40–43. Accessed October 1, 2020.
  2. Meera Sodha (2013). Roadside chai recipe. Accessed October 1, 2020.
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