These Merchants Can Bring the Vibrant World of Chais Straight to Your Doorstep

Outside India, a simplified barista ‘Masala Chai Latte’ does not represent its complex possibilities. Fortunately, many online tea retailers offer a representative sampling of India’s complex chai culture for the chai connoisseur.

Image by Grace Han for Thrillist
Image by Grace Han for Thrillist

Chai has followed me everywhere. It was the reason to wander into my grandmother's garden looking for herbs. It was always the end-goal at her house while we sat at her long, black mahogany dining table to slather salted butter on fresh bakery bread for dunking into the hot chai. An old black pendulum clock with carved lions kept watch above us, ticking away the minutes, marking each hour, but for me, those mornings remain bound in a time-capsule. Her Parsi friends’ made chai without any water. Grandma’s chai was made with 2% milk and the excuse to sneak some delicate papery skin of cream from the toned milk for my own mug. On a dusty convent-school playground in Mumbai, chai initiated a friendship with another new kid like me, Kashmira, who told me her favorite tea was the Kashmiri Butter Chai. Though I spent the next few years trying to recreate it, the quest for an authentic cup of Kashmiri Butter Chai has stayed with me longer than our friendship.

Chai was perhaps the first thing I learned to make for myself when I was tall enough to peek into a pot on the stove, a single vintage Arcopal mug from my grandfather’s travels abroad held my daily morning cha for years after. The “cutting-chai” cups from our college canteen were only filled halfway, but were caffeine-rich excuses to be youthfully oblivious to the worries of the world. Sipping steaming “pulled” chai from a steel cup from a chai vendor outside a hotel in the Nilgiri mountains invigorated the senses like no other. Crouching hearthside near a friend's mother, cradling the grassy, aromatic chai redolent of fresh, unpasteurized, creamy buffalo milk made me momentarily want to quit my Masters in Botany program and instead spend a lifetime managing her large dairy farm. It was the beverage I was required to serve to matrimonial prospects, a measure of my domestic skills. As those awkward moments unfolded, I told myself there was obviously more than one kind of chai; that I would not marry a chai drinker, but find one who could— at the very least— appreciate the finer nuances of chai.

Last year, as I researched for my cookbook on Ayurvedic teas and chai, Seven Pots of Tea, I even tried growing tea in my Georgia backyard. Over the years, chai and chai-making has given me many moments to pause, and teach myself and others - mindfulness and self-care.

‘Chai’, like its complex ingredients, has a bittersweet and powerful history in India. Warm drinks, brews and tisanes were part of the ancient practice of Ayurveda in India – with categories such as ‘kaadha’ (decoction), cha (tea), phanta (hot brew) and more. A ‘tea’ made with roasted and fermented tea leaves was enjoyed by the tribes of northeastern India long before India’s colonization. With its burgeoning untapped resources, India attracted tea-seeking colonizers fueled by their lust for a cheaper source than China in the early 1500s. My hometown, Bombay, even became  part of the wedding trousseau for the Portuguese Princess Catherine of Braganza along with chests of tea when she married King Charles II, of Britain in 1662. At first, tea from British-run, Indian plantations was not even popular among Indian locals, sold in chemists’ shops and avoided by locals at all costs! But the British began heavily marketing cheaper “tea-dust” to the locals. This ‘dust’ was what remained after the best tea was exported. Anglophiles enjoyed theirs with lemon and jaggery, and in contrast, nationalists boycotted tea as part of the non-cooperation movement. Tea advertisements from pre-Independence India emphasized gender roles, suggested upward mobility, and sometimes deepened religious divides.

Meanwhile, regional varieties of chai emerged with different water-to-milk-sweetener ratios. Farmers used locally available milk to mask the bitterness, whereas different sugar sources like palm sugar or jaggery and spices made chai sweeter and more complex. The Parsi community enhanced theirs with lemongrass and mint, as they had for generations prior around the port town in Gujarat, later dotting the Indian landscape with cafes. Tea in the Nilgiri regions was frequently consumed with locally grown whole spices like cardamom, cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Eventually, many kinds of regional chai evolved, their flavors changing with every kilometer of the country and every kitchen that made them. Many kinds of regional chai’s still exist in India, and are enjoyed locally.

Outside India, a simplified barista ‘Masala Chai Latte’ does not represent its complex possibilities. Fortunately, many online tea retailers offer a sampling of India’s complex chai culture for the chai connoisseur. After trying these tea suggestions below, you may never see chai the same way again.

A favorite tea-shop in Washington, D.C. offers a wide range of teas, but their masala chai is more representative of flavors favored in northern India. It is a beautifully complex blend of well-balanced spices and makes a bold and fragrant cup. Pair their organic masala chai with their ginger scones, for an effortless and near perfect Indian café experience.

Teabox offers a fantastic selection of teas based on many of Indian tea estates. Connoisseurs can literally spend hours perusing their selection and pick a variety of teas based on type, geography, harvest season and tea estate! They also offer several regionally unique teas and chais, including Kolkata Street Masala, Bombay Cutting Masala Chai, Nilgiri Jasmine Green Tea, a Kashmiri Kahwa with saffron and many others. For a complete immersion experience, select from their many sampler packs. This is an Indian company with fast and extremely affordable international shipping.

Spicewalla carried the idea of Parsi cafes’ to their many restaurant locations in the Southeast. Their product line includes a delicious chai masala and two kinds of teas. One of their teas is a collaboration with an Asheville based barista, High Five. Meanwhile, owner, Meherwan Irani includes a recipe on their website for Surti Chai from the upper west coast of India. Made with their ginger tea blend, it is also rich in dairy and makes a decadent and aromatic brew. They also carry a blend for turmeric milk (or golden milk) which in addition to turmeric milk, may even be added with tea leaves to brew a spicy turmeric chai.

Though not strictly a loose-tea retailer, this Chicago-based establishment carries a chai I have looked to replicate all my life: a Salty Pink Himalayan Chai with Almond Butter. They also offer a Chai concentrate growler, and loose tea blends from small estates in Nepal around the Darjeeling region, so folks can make their own chai at home, and delicious classic tea pairings for local pickup and delivery.

This popular spice merchant does not carry loose teas but owners Ethan and Ori offer several premium quality single source spices to enhance any ordinary black tea for your own blends. They have a wonderful chai masala mix with a host of spices as a collaboration with Anjali Bhargava, a food entrepreneur. This chai masala is designed to be added to a pot of brewing tea leaves for a spicy, aromatic Masala Chai with saffron.

Nandita Godbole is a Thrillist contributor.