The word “chai” simply means tea to most of the world's ears, so when one requests a “chai tea,” they are strangely asking for a “tea tea” to anyone in the know. Oddly enough, the spice mix that makes up masala chai, which translates to the more formally correct “mixed spice tea,” is called karha. It is this mix (ours being a blend of black pepper, white pepper, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg) that for Westerners is what we mean when we say “chai.” This isn’t a recent phenomenon. The chai latte has been popular in American coffeehouses for over thirty years. At this point, chai tea isn’t so much a misnomer as a dialectically distinctive term. Whatever you call it, chai tea is global, enjoyed widely enough that the sun never sets on this deliciously spice-rich infusion.
With the sun never setting in mind, masala chai is defined by its delicate combinations. If you are lucky enough to have visited more than one Indian household, you already know that karha is distinct from family to family, though most would agree that masala chai tea must contain, to some degree or another, water, milk, tea (often Assam), sugar, and a mixture of cardamom black pepper, and ginger. While not exact in their meaning, one’s preferred chai tea often falls into three categories: sweet, spicy, or dirty. Only “dirty” requires more explanation as it is specific to when coffee, or another substance, is added to chai tea.
Depending on how it’s brewed, chai can be an especially rich and flavorful low-calorie substitute for sugary beverages, though many do prefer their chai tea sugar forward. If you’ve never tried it, consider adding some spice to your day, quite literally, with a little chai tea.
Preparations will vary depending on the tea base and inclusions and each tea includes its specific instructions on the packaging. For a true Indian street chai please see the recipe here: Authentic Chai Masala Tea Preparation - Indian Street Chai