The History of Chai

In many cultures spanning the globe, brewing a cup of tea is a central feature to daily life. From the street vendors of India and the emerald mountainsides of Turkey’s tea capital Rize, to your Mum’s very own spotless kitchen, people have gathered around a cup of tea for centuries. With its turbulent history steeped in myth, war, royalty and treachery, tea has journeyed from a valuable and expensive commodity along the Silk Road to become the world’s most consumed drink after water. 

Origins of Camellia sinensis - The Tea Plant

An ancient Chinese legend dating back to 2737 BC fables that the poisoned Chinese Emperor, Shen Nung, was once sitting beneath a tree, boiling water in order to concoct a potion to cure himself of an illness. A few leaves from the tree happened to blow into the water, and the Emperor decided to taste the infusion. His ailment was cured. The tree was a Camellia sinensis, a species of small tree now widely grown for everyday tea drinkers to purchase.

It is impossible to say whether there is truth to the ancient tea legends rooted in Imperial China, yet the existence of these tales highlights a reverence of tea for thousands of years. Containers for tea have been found in tombs dating as far back as the Han Dynasty (202 BC - 220 AD), although archeological evidence suggests that tea leaves were first consumed as a vegetable. It was only 1500 years ago that people realised that adding tea leaves to boiling water extracted an intricate and varied taste from the leaves, and under the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 AD), a true culture surrounding tea emerged, as the drink became the aromatic subject of poetry, books and art. Tea would capture the imaginations and lives of many. Lu Tong (795 - 835 CE), a man known as “The Poet Sage of Tea”, would write the enduring poem “The Seven Bowls of Tea”, from a quiet mountainside province in which the drink would often be the sole theme of his art and poems.

"The Seven Bowls of Tea"

The first cup caresses my dry lips and throat,Kano Tsunenobu (1636-1713) Public domain via Wikimedia commons

The second shatters the walls of my lonely sadness,

The third searches the dry rivulets of my soul to find the series of five thousand scrolls,

With the fourth the pain of past injustice vanishes through my pores,

The fifth purifies my flesh and bone,

With the sixth I am in touch with the immortals,

The seventh gives such pleasure I can hardly bear,

The fresh wind blows through my wings,

As I make my way to Penglai the mountain of the immortals.

Kano Tsunenobu (1636-1713) Public domain via Wikimedia commons

The rise and fall of the tea monopoly

Fast forward, and the 1600’s saw tea culture spread across the globe, as China’s monopoly on the world’s tea trees made Camellia sinensis a desired commodity. After Dutch traders had brought tea to Europe, a Portuguese noblewoman called Catherine of Braganza married King Charles II, and it was her fashionable tea drinking habits that popularised the drink within the English aristocracy. During this time, Great Britain was in the midst of expanding its empire in order to become the dominant world power and, as the country’s colonial authority grew more powerful, the tea trade became more lucrative. 

The 1800’s saw the fall of China’s tea monopoly. As the price of tea became too expensive in silver, the British suggested Opium as a suitable trading replacement, which in turn sparked an immense public health crisis in China, as many fell victim to the addictive substance. In 1839 a Chinese official, in an act of rebellion against Britain's influence over China, ordered a large quantity of British shipments containing Opium to be destroyed. Thus, the first Opium War was sparked, and fighting would rage for three years along the Chinese coast. The nation’s military forces found themselves to be hugely inferior to Britain’s, as the Qing Dynasty were forced to give up Hong Kong to the British, opening more ports to foreign trade. The gates to Ancient China had been shattered, and with the secrets of its archaic dynasties left exposed, foreign predators made their move.

Tea comes to India

Seeking a global monopoly on the tea trade, Britain’s East India Company devised a perilous plan to steal the secrets of tea cultivation that had been hidden away in China for centuries. Scottish botanist Robert Fortune was sent into the treacherous foothills of China’s tea regions, in a covert hunt for the ancient leaves that had blown into a poisoned Emperor’s water over 2000 years prior. Disguised as a Chinese nobleman, Fortune not only found Camellia sinensis and noted down its manufacturing processes, but smuggled all of its brewing secrets and 80 tea specialists into Darjeeling and Assam in British ruled colonial India. 

Although a version of Camellia sinensis had been discovered in the Assamese mountains, it was only when Robert Fortune’s tea samples from China failed to grow in the warm, humid climate of Assam that the Indian plant was researched by the India Tea Committee, before being identified and cultivated as a tea bush. The wild tea bushes of Assam were tamed using processes of picking, drying and fermenting stolen from the Chinese, while the East India Company began to build vast tea plantations in Assam. By 1900, China’s tea trade had been all but replaced by the British Empire’s monopoly, and exports from China reduced from 90% in 1870 to just 5% by 1910 as India grew to be the world leader in tea manufacturing. 

An Assam tea garden

Despite this, the black tea harvested from Camellia sinensis was disliked by the Indian people of the time, with its high cost and bitter taste failing to appeal to the masses. Recognising the golden profits to be made if Indians were to love tea as much as the British, the India Tea Committee (made up of British tea estate owners) launched a huge promotional campaign in order to indoctrinate tea into the lives of Indians. Tea demonstration events were set up at railway stations, post offices and religious festivals where people were given tea for free and also shown how to brew it. A breakfast was said to be “incomplete” without a cup of tea, and tea breaks for workers were promoted as essential to one's day.

Spicing it up

Although tea surged in popularity, it remained an expensive commodity. To keep costs down, Indian street vendors began to add their own ingredients, in order to expand the flavour while keeping the usage of tea leaves minimal. It was at this moment where two ancient cultures collided to create the first iteration of Masala Chai, as the remedial leaves once adored by Chinese Emperors assimilated with Indian spice mixes derived from age-old Ayurvedic medical recipes.

Although many ancient Ayurvedic Indian works have been lost to time, texts such as the Charaka Samhita survived to form the foundational knowledge of Ayurveda, with large portions of the text dedicated to aiding the digestive system and preventing disease through the study of plants, herbs and spice mixes. 

Chai - an expression of freedom and rebellion

The folklore encircling the origin of these spice mixes dates back to an Indian Royal Court over 5000 years ago, in which a King sought to create an invigorating drink made from Ayurvedic spices to heal and cleanse the body. The immunity boosting drink known as Kadha was born, and for thousands of years, Indian people have utilised and diversified the ancient drink with a wide array of spices and ingredients, often incorporating ginger, black pepper, turmeric and munakka raisins.

Yet by the time black tea had reared its head in India during the time of the British Raj, Kadha began to find a new lease of life; its fusing with tea leaves, milk and sugar, serving almost as an ironic rebellion to British propaganda attempting to indoctrinate tea alone into Indian society. Although the India Tea Committee disapproved of the addition of spices, as well as large amounts of milk and sugar, tea vendors had discovered a loophole in the campaign to integrate black tea into the country. The tea was being used, but the unique, homespun inclusion of other ingredients greatly reduced the usage of tea leaves - and thus their purchase - by liquid volume. So came Chai; a flavourful, spice-infused tea that sweetens the tooth and vitalizes the mind and body.

A chai spice mix of saffron, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, black peppercorn and cloves

A strange and fascinating relic of colonial India and a fusion of two ancient Asian cultures, Chai has long outlasted the British Raj to become deeply ingrained in Indian society. Basking under the scorching heat of the sun, wails of “Chai, Chai…” can be heard around every street corner. Served piping hot to trigger the body’s natural cooling reflexes, the best Chai recipes are now often found to contain cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, peppercorn and more. In a creamy combination with milk and sugar, the luxurious liquid gold that streams from high pouring kettles never fails to entice, excite and delight the taste buds.

Yet, like its predecessor, Kadha, the beauty of Chai is in its diversity and growth. From African Chai served with rose petal and liquorice root, to the nut garnished pink Kashmiri Chai of Pakistan, Chai has evolved from its roots in royal courts to endure beyond empires. As new pioneers of Chai spread its reach worldwide, the drink that is rich in every way imaginable continues to heal and enchant those who drink it around the globe. 

By Charlie Lau








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