A Little History… Here’s Why Indians Drink So Much Chai Tea!

Last updated on October 27, 2021

An Indian man sips a chai tea on a break.
An Indian man sips a chai tea on a break.

Landing in Udaipur and staying for a week was a needed treat in these weeks and months of rapid travel and newness every morning when I face the day. I landed in Mumbai and startled at the lessons I had to learn about this complex country. Social norms here are different, expectations, interactions, cultures, and smells—it’s all light-years from my home, and even different from Southeast Asia, where I just left. And so, Udaipur was a relaxing stop and I’m glad that I took the week to learn the town and get used to India’s many peculiarities and quirks. I also had solid wifi at a nearby restaurant and so I spent my days in Udaipur doing client work in the mornings, then taking it slow on the sightseeing. And I drank chai, I drank a lot of chai.

What is Chai Tea?

Chai is a delightful and tasty treat. It’s a spicy tea cooked slowly so the flavors seep out and spill into the hot water. Then it’s milked and sugared and served boiling hot in a tiny glass. Everywhere I look, people sip chai. Locals drink this tea at least three times a day, and likely many, many more times than that. And chai consumption extends to foreigners too. Shop owners are quick to offer up a cup of steaming-hot, so-sweet, burn-your-mouth chai as I browse their wares. If you agree to a cup, they send a chai wallah down the street to their preferred vendor, and in less than two minutes the chai wallah is back with a tea for everyone involved.

Because of this, I’ve had as many as seven cups of chai in a single day. It’s impossible to avoid and it’s a fun and social dynamic that laces every encounter.

If you head to a vendor to book train tickets, they are thrilled to help—but how about a chai before getting down to the basics?

Having breakfast? I think it needs a bit of chai.

Dinner on the docket—not without a bit of chai time.

Is it 95 degrees outside with a sweltering, humid heat? Yep, still chai appropriate.

Why Do Indians Drink Chai?

Chai tea in India is entrenched in the culture; it’s also a legacy of the British. Only once the British arrive did India begin the cultivation of tea through tea plantations now covering massive swaths of Assam, Darjeeling, and other areas of India—this took off in the 1830s with the arrival of the British East India Company. Before that point, the vast majority of the world’s tea was grown and exported from China and Britain was importing a lot of Chinese tea. Colonization had ramped up around the world by this point, and the newfound easy access to sugar (thanks to sugar plantations in the Americas) made tea a hot commodity for people at every level of society, not just the wealthy.

It’s in the roughly 1830s that we see the British bring over the first tea plants from China and plant them on large estates in the Assam region, alongside planting native-grown wild teas found in the mountains. They did this specifically to protect British interests and make their tea habit less reliant on good will and good trade with the Chinese, according to the BBC. For a good while, the bulk of this tea, which was farmed by indentured laborers (a fancy word for slaves), was exported. But eventually it made its way into every community in India, where strong black tea with spice, milk and sugar—masala chai—is a beloved drink available to order from chaiwallas on every street in India.

That doesn’t mean Indians weren’t drinking tea before the British arrived—herbal teas have long been a part of Ayurvedic medicine and spices and herbs have been used for centuries across India. It’s the commercial production and refinement of tea (not an easy process!), however, that really changed the way Indians consumed tea. Today, tea is a massive export for India, and those two tea regions? Assam and Darjeeling are not only regions of India covered in tea plantations, they are two famous types of tea only grown in India.

Why Drink Tea When It’s Hot Outside?

I asked myself why Indians drink masala chai—not only why it’s a part of the culture, but why sip a hot drink in such sweltering heat? Even once the British left India, the tea-drinking culture of did not. Tea is the most popular drink across the subcontinent, not only because of the culture, but it’s affordable to even the poorest.

Tea is grown in India; it’s a major export from regions like Darjeeling, so locals don’t pay import fees. It’s a family business for many as well, and in the early days when the plantations began producing, the tea farmers offered samples to Indians to get them hooked.

Recipes vary between vendors and locals find a chai wallah with the perfect mix of spices, ginger, milk, and sugar, and they become lifelong customers. This is a fascinating series of vignettes on chai in India. And what’s more, Indians drink chai because of the heat, not in spite of it. Drinking a piping hot chai—or any hot drink—triggers cooling mechanisms inside of your body. Receptors in your mouth tell your body that you’re hot and your body responds by upping the number of cool mechanisms—sweat among them—and it exceeds the effect of adding a hot liquid into your system.

Plus, a billion people can’t be wrong; Indians clearly are on to something here.

And so, drinking masala chai is a part of the Indian culture at every level.

How to Enjoy a Chai With New Friends

There’s no escaping the fact that chai has a ubiquitous presence in their lives, and there’s no escaping its presence for travelers. Here’s the kicker about the thing—you can’t refuse a chai. It’s just not done. OK, sure, you could say no. But culturally, you simply should accept each masala chai offered or risk offense. Trust me, I learned this the hard way. As I searched for a specific boutique recommended in my guidebook, I just couldn’t find it. And that’s when a friendly Indian man in his twenties helped out, he pointed the way and good-naturedly bid me a “good day.” The next day, as I wandered around I passed the same man again! He was pleased to cross paths again and he offered to take me across the road for a cup of chai and conversation. Still getting used to the pace of life in India, and I didn’t realize that a polite refusal is a bit of an insult. With a smile I offered him a lighthearted, “Let’s do it next time we cross paths.” His response was equally polite but a definitive, no. He said, “Oh, but I will not offer again.”

And with that he walked away.

As I traveled across many areas of India over two months, the people were overwhelmingly kind and open. I never felt unsafe in accepting these bids for conversation, and usually I sat for a bit and slowed down the pace of my life. But in this situation with my tea refusal, I just had somewhere I thought I needed to be. The truth is, I could have stopped for the chai. It’s new, this idea of stopping every activity to take a moment for a chat. But it’s fun too, it’s a neat quirk of the very social culture here. And so, the next time I’m asked to chai, I’ll give the only acceptable answer: “Sounds perfect, where should we take our tea?”

20 thoughts on “A Little History… Here’s Why Indians Drink So Much Chai Tea!”

  1. You have become my friend !! Once I used to take seven or sometimes even more than that , for this reason; for as you have written you have ‘had at least seven cups of tea in a single day’.
    Of course, now I curtailed. At times I want to take more, but my family members forbid me .know.
    After all, liked your reading.

    Reply
    • Already responded in more depth in a previous comment, but basically you have to understand that the West does not use it like that—coffee chains, for better or worse, use “chai” to indicate a spiced masala tea blend. And, to help this post win in Google, I included the phrase the way most people search for it in English! I hear what you’re saying, but you’re not the first. Not sure how you got here, but if it’s via Google then you have a very good reason of why I used the phrase “chai tea” so the post was easily surfaced! :)

      Reply
  2. Hello! Great topic but just one point of consideration . Tea has been a beverage in Assam, popularly drunk by the singpohs long long before the advent of the British. Yes the British did popularize tea in the rest of India. But the notion that Indians did not drink black tea at all before the British showed up is somehow constantly overplayed.

    Reply
    • I think you missed the whole lines about “cultivation of tea through tea plantations” and “commercial production of tea”—that is a legacy of the British. Of course Indians were drinking tea, including black tea, long before they arrived. But as in many places in the world that had natural resources (tea, sugar, spice), it was through colonization that those resources were mass produced, exported and expanded (and exploited) to a scale and scope previously unseen. I think you are majorly underplaying the role the British played in accelerating India’s role as a major producer and exporter of tea.

      Reply
  3. Shannon, it was really great to read about your experiences with ‘Chai Tea’. Well, I do agree with the comment about the usage of ‘Chai’ along with ‘Tea’, as it appears a bit odd to the Indian readers (I hope Indian readers will agree with me). And I’d been writing about the various tea cultures across the world and while searching for content I landed upon your website and I’m absolutely in love with your content Shannon! I’m a budding freelance content writer and hope to achieve something exactly like this. Chai is life for me and this was something exactly I want to read during my chai tea times.

    Reply
  4. ‘Refusing tea is just not done’ is just not true. We are not that shallow to base acceptance on that.
    Yes, the commonest way to serve is the masala chai one, but now people enjoy a variety of brews. The hill states have their versions of salt or butter tea also.
    Its a cup that cheers.

    Reply
    • It was a said a bit more tongue-in-cheek than you are taking it. Of course you’re allowed to say no to a drink, I never implied people were pouring it down your throat. Though I got the distinct impression on more than one occasion that saying no to an offered chai was tantamount to saying that you didn’t care to sit and have a chat with the person.

      Reply
  5. Chai and tea are same and I’m not sure why the western world is unable to understand that. Chai is just an Indian name for tea, you don’t have to use both words to describe Indian tea. Just say Indian tea or chai!

    Reply
    • Fair point but in the West we generally use chai to signify the sweet masala chai served with milk. If we just said “tea” then it wouldn’t differentiate that we’re talking about the Indian style of tea. For better or worse, that’s how it’s thought of in the West (and reinforced by how coffee chains label “chai” as one of their types of tea when they mean spiced/masala chai!). Also, I used both to help this post get found in Google, if I’m being honest, because that’s how people search it! Thanks for providing people with a reality check though. :)

      Reply
      • Yes, I was bit amused to read ” chai tea” as both imply the same meaning. I am sure your intentions were honest, no question about it. But indians are very peculiar about the things they love or obsess to the
        core of their heart. Culturally responsive and western world also need to accept indian terms and names as they are.
        Fantastic article by the way. Loved it

        Reply
  6. Tea drinking in India has been documented in the Ramayana, 750-500 BCE, so the legacy of tea drinking here is a touch older than the British :)

    Reply

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