If you’re reading this blog you’re probably a little bit curious about chai latte. Maybe you’re already a fan and want to know more…perhaps you just want to know why it’s commonly known as ‘chai tea latte’, and what that means. If you’re looking for answers, you’ve come to the right place!
Whether you’re already a chai latte lover or haven’t tried it yet, you might have noticed that it is often referred to as ‘chai tea latte’ in Western popular culture. It’s even listed as chai tea latte on Starbucks’ menus! To understand why this is wrong (and why it makes no sense!) we need to first go through a few of the basics and understand the origins of chai latte.
What is chai latte?
Chai latte originated in the region that is now South East Asia many years ago. The exact date is disputed, but some people reckon it’s been around for thousands of years. It was originally created as a medicine by Ayurvedic doctors who used the delicious variety of spices contained within it to treat a variety of different ailments. Over time it became increasingly popular and cemented itself as a regional favourite. It has long been the national beverage of India, served everywhere with almost anything. It is traditionally made with creamy milk or condensed milk and generous helpings of sugar. Every family or establishment tends to have their own recipe – where spices are selected and cracked or ground, gently roasted then blended with black tea. They are then brewed with the milk for long enough to bring out the beautiful flavours of the spices without making the tea bitter. It’s a beautiful and treasured speciality of huge cultural significance in India. In neighbouring Pakistan Karak Chai is made in a similar way, another descendant of the medicinal Ayurvedic brew.
The extended version of chai latte today is ‘masala chai latte’ – which translates as mixed spice tea latte, which brings us on to your burning question…
Why ‘chai tea latte’ makes no sense
If ‘masala chai latte’ means ‘spiced tea latte’, chai latte means ‘tea latte’. And ‘chai tea latte’ means….you guessed it. Tea tea latte. No, that’s not a typo!
In Hindi chai means tea – but it’s also the word for tea in other cultures. So what should you call it instead? The easiest expression to use is ‘chai latte’. It’s nice and simple and most people know what that is, even if really it’s quite a broad term (matcha and earl grey lattes could come under this umbrella!). If you want to be more specific, you could call it a ‘spiced chai latte’. If you want to be totally accurate you could call it ‘masala chai latte’ or simply, ‘masala chai’ 😉
Is it a chai latte if there’s no tea in it?
Technically, no. Since the name means ‘tea latte’, if it doesn’t contain tea it doesn’t seem right to call it chai. But lots of people do! Because the name ‘chai latte’ has come to mean ‘milky drink that contains spices’ in the West, it’s often misunderstood and mis-sold. Most commercial blends available in shops, supermarkets and coffee shops (even the fancy ones) are made with inauthentic powdered mixes or syrups, which don’t contain tea or the traditional variety of spices. So what’s the difference between them? Here’s a quick run-down:
- Rarely (pretty much never) contain tea
- Contain high amounts of sugar or sweetener (this is necessary as the sweetness has to assimilate through the entire product). In India chai is served incredibly sweet…but the sweetness complements and balances the depth of the multitude of spices within the blend, which brings us on to the next point…
- Only contain a handful of the spices that would feature in an authentic masala chai latte. This is a problem because the taste is usually off…it’s usually far too heavy on cinnamon
- Rarely (again, usually never) contain tea. Concentrates and home-made syrups are different. They are usually made with a loose-leaf blend, so they do contain tea.
- It’s a syrup, so it’s mega-sweet. Sometimes too sweet – again it’s hard to balance the spices with the high sugar content, so the result can be sickly
- Syrups that aren’t home-made tend to lack flavour like powdered alternatives. Flavourings are often synthetic and again heavily depend on cinnamon and ginger
Loose leaf blends:
- Made in the authentic way – a blend of black tea and mixed spices
- Can be tea blends – not made as chai latte blends (our blends are specially made in the authentic way to be taken with milk)
- Have depth of flavour because they contain tea and a variety of spices (the type of spices and quantity varies greatly from brand to brand)
- Can be ‘sticky’/’wet’ (blended with honey/agave syrup) or dry (ours is dry, made without sugar)
- Tea blends are usually too weak to make a good chai latte with – they’re better with water alone or just a little milk
- Loose leaf chai latte blends are ironically a rare breed in the market…powders and syrups dominate even though they aren’t technically chai latte at all!
So how can you be sure that you’re getting the real deal? The easiest way is to ask the barista ‘is the chai latte a loose leaf blend or is it made with powder or syrup?’ If you’re short on time, simply asking if it’s caffeine-free usually answers the question – since powders and syrups rarely contain tea, they are usually free from caffeine.