Chai originated in the Indian subcontinent. Wild tea plants grew in the Assam region of India, as noticed by British colonists in the 1830s, who began to cultivate the plant. However, consumption of Indian tea in Britain didn’t take off until the late 19th Century, with over 90% of tea still being of Chinese origin in the 1870s. The end of the century saw Indian-grown tea gain immensely in popularity, and by 1900 Chinese tea consumption had dropped to just 10%.
However, tea, which was historically used in medicine in India rather than as a beverage, still wasn’t a popular drink in India until the early 20th Century. The Indian Tea Association encouraged employers to give their staff tea breaks and supported independent tea vendors. These vendors, which were commonly found on rail routes around the country, took to substituting some of the tea leaves in their tea with spices and a high volume of milk and sugar, to reduce their costs.
Despite the Indian Tea Association’s disapproval, ‘Masala Chai’ became firmly established as the delicious beverage we know today, available the world over.