On Masala Chai

The creation story of masala chai is slightly different depending who you’re talking to. The one we heard about goes something like…

For centuries Grandmother, the traditional caretaker of the household, would brew a blend of plant roots, bark and seeds if a family member became ill or as a tonic to stay healthy through the changing seasons. In fact, many of the ingredients now found in a classic cup of masala chai are useful for treating colds, flu, stomach ailments, digestive problems, lung issues and other common mauiuitanga. These family recipes were handed down from mother to daughter to granddaughters over generations spanning hundreds of years.

Eventually tea, with its energy-giving medicine, made its way into Grandma’s spice decoctions. Add some milk and sugar, originating from both the Indian Ayurvedic and British teatime traditions, and masala chai was born.

The spicy, sweet, milky brew is an ayurvedic rongoa, a restorative drink to balance mind, body and soul (wairua, hinengaro, tinana).

Ayurveda, “the knowledge of life,” is the ancient healing science of India that teaches we are not separate from nature. As nature, we are in a living relationship with everything around us, thus constantly affected by our physical, psychic and spiritual environment. Our actions, diet, lifestyle, thoughts, relationships, emotions, sleep, spiritual practices, the seasons, the way we breathe, the chai we drink, and everything else we do and do not do, all affect the health of our being — body, mind and soul. The key to sustaining health, according to Ayurvedic principles, is to live in balance with our surroundings guided by the laws of nature.

Masala chai, therefore, can be a healing elixir if it creates a state of balance within our being. During winter, warming spices like ginger, cinnamon and pepper will keep us in harmony with the season. In the sweltering summertime, mint, fennel, coriander, saffron, and the cooling nature of sweet milk, can help us stay cool and balanced.

With this knowledge we can concoct our masala chai by taking into consideration the season, as well as what other qualities are most needed to help balance those who are drinking it. The amount of tea we use, if at all, would depend on whether our guest is tired or anxious, and by what time of day it is. We would not want to fuel the flames of an angry, hot-blooded visitor with a spicy chai, but rather offer him or her a cooling chai and a peaceful environment in which to enjoy it. Asking questions like: “How do I feel?” “What will the weather be like today?” “Who is coming over?” will help guide your formulation as you brew up a restorative chai.

Whitney NPWai