Simultaneously spicy and sweet, to sip a steaming mug of masala chai is to engage all one’s senses in a wave of soothing and multidimensional flavor.

The beverage has long enjoyed popularity across hemispheres, and inspired countless variations on its classic, savory taste.

But where did what most tea drinkers simply call “chai” come from? What is the story behind this unique yet illustrious tea?

Read on to learn more, including why “chai tea” does not actually exist.

A Massive Misnomer

Let’s cut to the chase. “chai tea” is not a real drink.

How could this be?

As it turns out, when most Americans order it, they are actually referring to a beverage called masala chai. This translates to “spiced tea,” from Hindi. Therefore, asking for a cup of chai tea is like saying, “I’ll have the tea tea, please”. 

With these linguistic technicalities sufficiently shot out of the water, we many continue on to learn the history of masala chai. 

Where did it come from, where did it go?

Historians are unsure whether this toasty treat originated in India or Thailand, but one thing is for certain: masala chai is a very old and historically significant drink.

An estimated 9,000 years ago, Asian tea makers enjoyed the caffeine-free concoction as a remedy for illnesses such as the common cold. First made without leaves, the British introduction of black tea leaves during the early 19th century created the form of masala chai most of us know today.

Pour some sugar on me

Surprisingly enough, this is one drink to which Americans did not alter by the addition of sweetening elements such as sugar, milk, and honey. It was actually intended to be prepared that way.

Indian chai wallahs, or “tea persons”, have historically used those ingredients to enhance the flavor of their drinks.

In some regions of India, households are known to consume four cups of masala chai a day! Its popularity has spread across the globe, earning praise from high-profile figures such as Oprah Winfrey and the Kardashian family. But it’s important to keep in mind what made it special before chai took pop culture by storm.

An unforgettable taste

Cinnamon is the first flavor to hit the tounge. Next comes a note of ginger, its bitterness beset by a creamy splash of milk.

Savor your tea time, and you’ll notice turmeric’s earthy, mild antioxidants complementing the mix. These ingredients are famously healthy, boasting a wide range of benefits from anti-inflammatory to cancer-preventing properties.

The result: a cup of masala chai that will always leave you feeling livened and refreshed.

Sounds good! Where can I find some?

The real question is: where isn’t masala chai served?

Coffee aficionados will find it mixed into a perky and innovative “dirty chai” offering at their favorite shop. Bagel lovers will be pleased to hear that a “chai tea (sic) latte” is on the menu at the Einstein Bagel Co.

Whether you prefer it hot or cold, milky and sweet or simply unadorned, there is certainly a cup to please everyone. The following are SpoonU’s local recomendations.

Chai Latte at the Davenport Coffee Lounge

Elliott Parrish

This is a treat best reserved for a rainy day.

As the wind tossed the branches of AU’s arboretum on a chilly weekday morning, I stumbled into the Dav and ordered a tall, hot chai latte to perk up my drooping eyelids.

Tasting its unmistakable hit of spice, the stress and fatigue of a long week faded into oblivion. The remarkable, no-holds-barred spiciness of this drink is more vivacious than the darkest espresso, and more enjoyable than any other black teas. The latte packs a bittersweet snap of cinnamon reminiscent of Mexican hot chocolate, but soothes the taste buds with a dash of milk and super-sweet cane sugar. For those trying masala

chai for the first time, it will prove nearly impossible not to become a fan after experiencing the Dav’s riff on this classic.

French Vanilla Winter Chai from Twinings

In the world of tea, black vanilla bean is the simplest of pleasures. Patrons of this prestigious British brand may douse their mug in vanilla almond milk or appreciate the subtle and savory flavor as-is.

Twinings (literally) spiced things up by throwing Masala into the mix, thereby creating a drink sure to warm the most frigid winter days.

This writer recommends adding a touch of honey to make for an especially eclectic cup of tea.

Chai Creme Frappuccino and Dirty Vanilla Chai at Starbucks

Elliott Parrish

It’s fair to say Starbucks has it’s finger on the pulse of every trend in the universe of coffee and tea.

While many are familiar with their Chai frap, featuring a decadent dollop of whipped cream on top, fewer have heard of the secret menu “dirty chai”—a latte with a shot of espresso mixed in. For those who like to have their cake and eat it too, drinking a cup of coffee and tea at the same time is an ideal order at America’s most popular coffee chain.

Iced Chai at the Bridge

Elliott Parrish

Baristas at this beloved student-run joint have long enjoyed experimenting with Chai, serving up creative drinks to a loyal clientele of AU students. (See the limited edition “Coconut Claire Chai,” pictured above).

When you order the particularly picturesque Iced Chai, be sure to relish the fact that none of your friends at GW or Georgetown attend a university that offers this one-of-a-kind refresher.