Chai, a modern take on an antique tea, has recently been discovered by all the haute coffeehouses across America. Although it's existed globally for thousands of years, it's only been easy to find here in the states for the past seven or so.
In the early to mid 90s, several U.S.-based chai concentrate manufacturers began marketing their concoctions, and chai lattes became the rage in a few cafes around the country. Those serving it believed chai would become an integral part of a growing consumption of tea in the U.S. But acceptance of chai into the American cafe scene has been slow. Even though U.S. tea consumption rose eight percent last year, many market analysts chalk chai's slow growth to the decrease in coffee consumption among Americans. See, the majority of American cafes serve chai more like a latte than like a cup of tea. Thus, chai competes more for the everyday coffee drinker than it does for the tea sipper.
What is Chai?
In India, the birthplace of chai, the word "chai" simply means "tea." Here in the U.S. though, chai refers to a specific, and oft-overlooked and undermarketed, coffeehouse cup... a pumpkiny-cinnamony-spicy tea-based concoction that competes with every other fu-fu coffee drink. And we've latched onto only one of the many different types of chai prepared in India -- masala chai -- adhering to a southern Indian, British-style service method of incorporating milk into the mix.
So the chai we drink here, hot or cold, tends to be in the form of a chai latte, infused with spices we commonly consume in pumpkin pie -- cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, vanilla and star anise. For the hot version, milk (whether whole, skim, rice or soy) is steamed at the espresso machine and added to the concentrate; for the cold one, straight milk is incorporated and the drink served over ice. An iced chai latte might also take a few whirls in a blender. Regardless how it's served, the comparisons to pumpkin pie in a cup are uncanny.
Chew on This!
There's a new tea trend threatening to overtake chai on the popularity charts. Hipsters on both coasts have been spotted sipping "boba" tea at local tea bars. Sometimes called "pearls" or "bubbles" (all slang references to women's breasts in Chinese), boba's a Chinese beverage that's squishing its way into the mainstream. Although there are many variations, it's primarily made by combining black, marble-sized tapioca balls with a variety of tea- or fruit-based drinks, most of them milky. The concoction is then combined with ice, shaken (often in the ever-trendy martini shaker) and served topped with a dollop of the tapioca pearls. The drink's then sucked -- milkshake style -- through extra wide, colorful straws.