A Chai Is the Perfect Soul-Warming Drink — Here's What the Tea Tastes Like

Chai was originally a remedying, cleansing drink, though today it is enjoyed for many reasons by tea drinkers.

Jamie Bichelman - Author

Mar. 13 2024, Published 3:12 p.m. ET

A person holds one of two cups of chai tea with cinnamon sticks inside it for added flavor.
Source: iStock

Chai is a traditional Ayurvedic tea thought to have first been used between 5,000 and 9,000 years ago in India. With such a rich, storied history speaking to both its medicinal value and deliciousness, those who haven't had the privilege of enjoying a mugful of chai surely must be wondering what it tastes likes.

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The drink is a powerful concoction full of spices that warm the body (regardless if it's served hot or over ice) and is enjoyed in coffeeshops and Indian restaurants alike. Learn more below as we brew a cup of tea with chai spices and review the history of this amazing drink.

And before we dive in, make sure not to use the phrase "chai tea" — a superfluous phrase that means "tea tea," and will earn you an eye roll from devout chai drinkers.

A person in a gray sweater holds an amber cup of chai tea seasoned with cinnamon.
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What is chai?

According to Hackberry Tea, the word chai is derived from the Chinese word for tea — "cha" — and refers to a drink made with Camellia sinensis leaves and a mixture of spices — or "masala" — dating back at least 5,000 years in India. But when Chai was first developed, as noted by TeaCupsFull, the drink didn't have any tea leaves nor caffeine.

As the story goes, King Harshavardhana of India drank the Ayurvedic combination of spices, which includes clove and ginger, to help keep him awake and alert, per TeaCupsFull.

Today, "chai" refers to the blend of spices that comprise the popular drink. According to The Spruce Eats, chai has undergone evolution over millennia, and the drink grew in popularity in India throughout the 1960s.

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Blog The Vegan 8's recipe for homemade chai includes cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, and black pepper.

Typically sweetened with cane sugar, jaggery, or honey, and mixed with some type of milk, chai has survived for thousands of years across the world because of its value to the body and soul as much as its taste.

A married couple from India drink chai tea from matching orange cups as they smile at one another.
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What does chai taste like?

Frequently consumed in cafes across the U.S. as a latte topped with cinnamon, chai's blend of warm spices is extremely invigorating.

In my experience at vegan-friendly Indian food buffets, the post-meal cup of warm chai has proven excellent for digestion. I have found the timing of when chai is served to be akin to the way coffee is sometimes served with dessert after a meal at American restaurants.

If you're expecting the sweetness of the everyday oat milk latte (let alone a flavored one) when you try chai for the first time, you'll surely be caught off guard.

Chai's blend of spices may be interpreted as savory mixed with the aroma of a pumpkin pie, rather than the chocolatey, sometimes vanilla, sweeter profile you might expect from light and sweet coffee.

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As explained in the BuzzFeed India video above, chai can be consumed in a variety of ways, with or without milk or sweeteners, thus affecting the intensity of each spice.

As noted in Corrie Cooks, the aroma of the drink is especially influential to the taste of chai. Whether it includes the ingredients above or star anise, cardamom, or other variations like syrups and vanilla, your experience may be entirely different (and sweeter) from the "warm" description commonly used.

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A chef in a black uniform in a kitchen creates a dirty chai concoction in a large pot intended for mass sale at a cafe.
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What is dirty chai? Here's how it differs from chai and what it tastes like.

The word "dirty" when paired with chai refers to the addition of espresso. In this recipe from YouTuber Buttered Side Up, a homemade dirty chai latte includes espresso and a touch of maple syrup.

Don't worry if can't find the drink on the menu of your local coffee shop, as the drink can easily be made if you just know how to order it properly.

According to The Spruce Eats, simply ask the barista for a shot of espresso added to your chai latte, which may very well have been made with a chai syrup to begin with. You can make your drink "double dirty" if you are brave enough to add two shots of espresso to your chai.

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