Food & Drink

The Correct Way to Order Chai and Why It Matters

chai tea
Danna Windsor/Thrillist

I’ll start by admitting, I didn’t know this, either. When I first tried Indian-style tea, infused with spices like cardamom and ginger, I called it “chai tea.” It wasn’t until I met my (now) husband, who was born and raised in Mumbai, that I learned that “chai” means “tea” in Hindi. So you’re basically saying “tea tea” when you say “chai tea,” and who wants to sound goofy like that when they order tea? No one, that’s who. So that’s why I’m telling you.

What should you say instead? You could say “masala chai.” Masala generally refers to a melange of spices, whether in a curry (also a problematic term) or in tea. So if it’s that milky cardamom-ginger-Assam combo you’re craving, that’s the correct language to use. Unless you’re at Starbucks, where a small is called a grande and a mini cappuccino is called a macchiato and down is sideways. They’re making up their own bizarro drink nomenclature over there. Everywhere else, it should be “masala chai” or just plain “chai.”

Also? You don’t have to call it “chai latte” because masala chai is nearly always made with hot milk. And chai doesn’t typically have that thin layer of foamed milk that a cafe latte does -- unless you get yours at Starbucks.

Anway, why should you take this from me, a Mexican-American who’s just learning this stuff herself? You don’t have to. I’ve gone and talked with Ayan Sanyal, co-owner, with his brother Ani, of the Kolkata Chai Co. in Manhattan’s East Village.

The brothers operated as a pop-up at markets around the city, building a following. By the time they opened their shop this fall, the people were more than ready for chai brewed with tea and spices, not from a pre-made treacly syrup. There were lines around the block.

Inside the shop you’ll see “CHAI TEA” painted on the wall with a bright red strike through the word “tea.” But despite that bold declaration, Sanyal says he doesn’t get too irritated when people say “chai tea.” His mission is more focused on inclusion and education. He understands why Starbucks used both words when it first introduced their syrup-based version of the Indian tea; they were building on what was already familiar to consumers, then. But now, he says, “I think we’re at a point where we can just use ‘chai.’”

“I always tell people there are two branches of the etymology, tea or te from the Chinese, and cha or chai from the Indian,” Sanyal explains. In fact, it was the British colonizers who introduced black tea drinking to the people of India. Before that, Indians drank a hot spice mixture called kahwa. So tea in Indian became a mixture of both black tea (often Assam) and this spice mixture.

Sanyal, whose family hails from Kolkata (hence the cafe’s name), traveled throughout India tasting as many versions of chai as he could, and found that it can vary widely. But the most common version features cardamom and fresh ginger -- rather than the pumpkin spice latte flavor profile in which cinnamon and nutmeg dominate. (My in-laws in Mumbai all start their tea by steeping fresh ginger and cardamom pods.)

You’ll see other versions of chai on Kolkata’s menu, like Sanyal’s mother’s favorite, Nimbu. This is made with a bit of lemon or lime instead of milk (nimbu means lemon in Hindi). I tried their ambrosial kesar chai. Kesar translates to saffron, so this tea is topped with saffron threads, which adds an almost savory dimension to the taste.

And you’ll see other cultural influences on the menu, like Mexican-style coffee, cafe de olla, which is made with cinnamon, star anise, and orange peel. “I’m always trying to do that cultural exchange in a subtle way, to teach through food,” Sanyal says. “It’s the best way to learn because it’s delicious.”

Growing up with immigrant parents, the Sanyal brothers felt conflicted between their Indian culture and American culture. But now, Aryan feels like there’s more room now to embrace both cultures at once. “They’re not opposing anymore,” he says. “You don’t have to choose. The American dream is having both.”

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Adriana Velez is a food editor at Thrillist.