Way before matcha cemented its status as MVP of the tea world, those in the know were sipping on chai: A spiced drink that originated in India in the 1920s and seeped into mainstream Western culture in the late ‘90s. (Gunther was definitely serving up loads of dirty chai lattes at Central Perk.)
You may have also heard it referred to as “masala chai” or “spiced chai,” since “chai” actually translates to “tea” in many Indian languages. And while the beverage’s popularity may have peaked Stateside decades ago, its crazy-long list of health benefits makes it totally worthy of a spot in your current coffeehouse rotation.
What’s chai good for?
1. Protect against free-radicals: For one thing, chai’s black-tea base is rich in powerful antioxidants that protect cells from free-radical damage—a phenomenon we all experience that can lead to cancer, heart disease, premature aging, and more.
3. Helps keeps hormones balanced: Research has found that drinking black tea may even change the way women’s genes are expressed, helping balance hormones, reduce inflammation, and possibly prevent cancer.
4. Strengthens immune system: Consider the fact that chai is also blended with an array of antioxidant-rich spices, each one with some pretty powerful, science-backed healing traits of its own. Ginger, for one, is known to have anti-nausea properties, while also helping to reduce inflammation and strengthen the immune system. Cardamom and black pepper also have digestive superpowers, further boosting chai’s reputation as a potent stomach savior.
5. Boosts brain health: Research shows cinnamon, an essential part of the chai blend, may help balance blood sugar and contribute to a healthy brain, perhaps even staving off Alzheimer’s disease.
6. Reduces tumor growth: And then, there are cloves—with the highest antioxidant content of any spice, these antiviral, antibacterial powerhouses are being studied for their anticancer properties, as they’ve been shown to inhibit tumor growth in vitro.
Put all these star spices together, and you’ve got a lot of bang for your wellness-beverage buck. “I would look at the recipe of a good chai tea like a good Chinese medicine formula—the ingredients work together synergistically,” says herbalist and Urban Remedy founder Neka Pasquale, LAc, MS. “If you had one herb supporting the digestion it would be great, but all of them together have a much stronger effect.”
Who should—and shouldn’t—drink chai
But is chai worth giving up your cold-brew matcha or mushroom latte for? It’s a tricky question. According to Pasquale, chai is more potent than single-ingredient teas, which can be a good thing. “The herbs in chai tea are strong herbs—it’s more than a tea, it’s like a traditional medicinal formula,” she says. If you’re suffering from a mild inflammatory condition—like muscle aches or menstrual cramps—or want to boost your digestion or recover from a cold, Pasquale believes the blend of superspices in chai could help. “The ingredients in chai are very warming, which makes it a perfect winter tonic,” she adds.
However, that warmth could be detrimental to some people, she adds. “When you look at people constitutionally, some people already have way too much heat in their bodies—they might have really bad heartburn or feel hot, like people with a fever or women going through menopause,” she says. (Looking at you, pitta doshas.) “You don’t want to heat them up too much, because it aggravates the heat already in their body.” Sounds familiar? If so, you don’t have to skip chai altogether—Pasquale recommends making it yourself and swapping the black tea for green tea, which is more cooling and has plenty of powerful health benefits of its own. (More on that in a minute.)
How to make chai from scratch
Before you start ordering chai off the menu at your local coffee chain, remember that it’s not all created equal. “Be careful of the chai tea you’re drinking,” warns Pasquale. “If you go into a place that does a really sugary chai tea that’s not high quality, it’s not gonna be as good as one with natural spices brewed in the traditional way.” She recommends asking your barista how it’s made before you order, and if the chai comes pre-made from a carton, it’s likely not a healthy option. Tea bags are a better way to go, but she claims even these won’t be as powerful as a chai made from scratch, where fresh spices and tea leaves are brewed together in boiling water for 10-15 minutes, then strained.
Here, Pasquale provides her personal recipe for freshly brewed chai tea, which can be enjoyed on its own or with cream and natural sweetener. “Chai is really nice with raw honey, but if you don’t want the sugar spike, you can do stevia,” she recommends, adding that she likes to take hers with coconut cream or cashew milk. So as we move into fall and the weather starts to chill, consider switching up your matcha latte for a chai instead. At the very least, it’ll taste good—and it may even make your gut happier.
Urban Remedy’s Chai Tea
Yields 1 serving
1/2 cup cashew milk
1/ 2 cup water
1 black or green tea bag
4 green cardamom pods
1 inch chunk of fresh ginger root
1 small cinnamon stick
2 tsp raw honey or a few drops of stevia
1. Put all ingredients into a saucepan. Warm over medium heat.
2. Allow to heat until it starts to boil, then turn off the heat and stir.
3. Bring to a boil once more, then turn off the heat and stir.
4. Allow to steep for 5 minutes.
5. Strain into a cup, add raw honey or stevia, and serve.
Steal Jamie Chung’s 5-ingredient, post-dinner tea recipe if you’re prone to bloating—but give those Instagram teatoxes a pass.
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