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What is chai? Everything you need to know

A guide to chai tea

Indian chai in a white cup with floating star anise.
Mae Mu / Unsplash

“Chai” is a word tea lovers tend to throw around, especially when ordering drinks such as the popular chai tea latte. But have you stopped to consider: “what is chai”? Some of us know we love the taste of chai, yet aren’t quite sure what it contains. The word chai itself means “tea” in Hindi, yet in the U.S., the term chai generally refers to chai tea. In this guide, we’ll dive into all the “what is chai tea” questions you might have, including what it tastes like, where to find it and what to include as you learn how to make delicious Chai tea.

What is chai?

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In the U.S., chai typically refers to a black tea that is mixed with unique Indian spices, such as cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, clovers, ginger, and black peppercorns. These spices give chai its unique taste which is brewed as a hot tea and frequently enjoyed with cream or milk added in.

There are quite a few variations of the way chai tea can be enjoyed, as each culture has put its unique spin on this drink. While chai tea is most popular in India, it originated out of British colonization. Today, chai tea is enjoyed all over the world.

What is in chai tea?

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Despite different variations, all chai is made of the same basic ingredients: tea, spices, milk or cream, and some form of sweetener. Here’s a breakdown of a basic chai tea:


Most often, chai tea will contain black tea as the base, although some people may use a mixture of different teas and spices to create a customized chai blend. Using black tea also provides the option of using decaffeinated black tea if you don’t want to consume caffeine. Most standard cups of black tea contain about 50 mg of caffeine (about half of an average cup of coffee).


Part of what makes chai tea so enjoyable for most of us is the creamy texture. Although you can enjoy it without milk or cream, most people order it with some form of milk. A standard chai tea comes with whole milk, but there are lots of variations that can accommodate different dietary preferences, including dairy-free and plant-based milk alternatives. Using almond milk, soy milk, oat milk, coconut milk, or other dairy-free milk options, however, could result in a slightly different taste for your chai tea.


Chai tea is usually sweetened with regular white sugar (adjusted to taste) or sometimes unrefined cane sugar. However, it can also be enjoyed without any sweetener at all or with an alternative sweetener. Some people use zero-calorie sweeteners such as Splenda or sweet-n-low to keep the calories in the drink down or use natural sweeteners like monk fruit or stevia. Honey is also a great option to give your chai tea a hint of natural sweetness.

Where to find chai tea

Variety of Indian masala chai spices - star anise, cloves and cinnamon on a plate.
VD Photography / Unsplash

Chai tea bags are easy to find at nearly any grocery store or market in the tea aisle, commonly packaged by well-known tea brands like Tazo and Bigelow. Of course, the other option is to make your chai tea from scratch at home if you’re looking to recreate authentic, homemade Indian chai tea. While on the go, you can find Chai tea at Starbucks Teavana shops or local coffee shops that also serve tea. Ordering your chai tea at Starbucks gives you a ton of flexibility with their customizable flavoring and add-in options, allowing you to craft the perfect chai tea that matches your flavor preferences.

What is chai tea vs. chai latte?

chai tea
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Ordering a chai tea while at a restaurant or coffee shop sounds simple until you find different variations, such as the “chai tea latte” on the menu. A chai tea is simply a freshly brewed cup of chai tea with whole milk. Chai tea is made by allowing the tea leaves and chai spices to infused into water and adding milk. On the other hand, a chai tea latte uses steamed milk (such as in a latte made with espresso), which creates a creamy, frothy, and smooth texture to the drink.

A chai tea is a great option if you prefer a stronger tea flavor, as it uses less milk than a chai latte. On the other hand, if you want to indulge in something creamy and sweeter, you’ll love a chai latte as a treat. In the U.S., chai tea lattes are also enjoyed cold as iced chai tea lattes. Since iced chai teas are served on ice, you can expect the cold version to have a milder, lighter taste.

Emily Caldwell
Emily is a freelance writer with a special focus on health, fitness, lifestyle, food, and nutrition topics. She holds a B.S…
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