Pull out the spices! Apple pie, pumpkin pie, spiced cider—and chai—season has arrived!So let me ask you: seasonal junk food? Or health-boosting treats?
And why do we suddenly crave them when autumn rolls ’round?
Before the advent of refrigeration and the practice of shipping food all over the world, people generally ate food that was locally grown, and in the season that it was harvested.
Since apples and pumpkins, for example, arrive as the weather chills and sets the leaves ablaze, we Michiganders may be sort of programmed to indulge in these foods at this time of year, whether an evolutionary thing or from habit.
But of course they taste the best at harvest, and they provide plenty of health benefits. For example, pumpkins and winter squash don’t accumulate heavy metals (making them ideal for baby food), and like apples, are loaded with antioxidants; there is some indication that they help with depression.
And as to adding spices to apples and pumpkins—there may be good science in that too.
Spices boost the immune system; lower the risk of high blood pressure, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer; are antioxidants and antibacterials; and, in spice combinations, may improve bioactivities, which in turn are good for your nutritional health.
In a study of the health benefits of twelve spices, our favorite autumn spices—cloves and cinnamon—ranked on the top! Further, when spices were heated, antioxidant benefits increased for cardamom and cloves, as did the antibacterial benefits for cardamom and cinnamon.
If you add honey, well, that also might have some benefits. Ongoing research suggests honey has antimicrobial, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties.
Therefore, adding all these together:
spices + fruit + honey + heat + tea = CHAI, a drink perfectly suited to autumn
Chai can be many things: black or green tea based, or just a blend of spices. Recipes abound.
Unfortunately, like so much of tea’s history, chai’s origin was political and complex.
The 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago was pivotal to tea producers trying to gain a greater foothold in the U.S. market and convert them from green (i.e., Chinese and Japanese) to black (i.e., Ceylon or Indian) tea drinkers.
Ceylon realized that a duty on tea could fund their exhibition at the fair—along with a year’s worth of making connections and building relationships.
With India, then, at a distinct disadvantage in Chicago, British tea producers instituted their own duty before the 1903 fair, and beefed up advertising.
Including to India. And with not just a little condescension and arrogance. And with the thought that because India was still a colony, it “might be easier to control and certainly cheaper to develop than that of the United States” (Rappaport 2017:208). Plus it’d be a way to profitably get rid of extra tea.
Indians, of course, already knew about tea, and had a history of drinking tea from China. So part of this new advertising was “teaching” Indians how to “properly” drink tea. Yeah.
And rather than see that when Indians made a sweetened spicy, milky tea—or masala (or spice blend) chai (or tea), which we now often call simply chai—it was perhaps
a creative way that Indians made [black] tea more familiar and affordable, [but tea] promoters worried that this “spiced tea” would not contain enough actual tea and thus lead to diminished demand for their product. They made efforts therefore to try to teach people how to brew, sell, and drink tea as the British drank it. . . . they advertised tea as Indian but wanted Indians to shop, sell, and drink tea like the British. (Rappaport 2017:261)
Not surprisingly, debate raged and Mahatma Gandhi called out advertisers for their propaganda. Yet, even with years of intense controversy, India didn’t end up outright spurning either the beverage or the crop.
Rather, as Rappaport (2017:262) says, “they made it their own.”
Today, India joins China as one of the world’s top producers of tea—from black tea that forms the base of chai and countless other blends to fine Assams and exquisite Darjeelings.
And there are as many types of chai as you can dream up, including these examples:
Kashmir Khali Kahwa, a green and black tea-based chai in which orange peel nestles alongside cinnamon pieces and whole cardamom and cloves;Enlightenment, a naturally caffeine-free herbal tisane of cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, cloves, and pepper;Indian Chai, a robust black tea-based chai that has cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, cloves, and pepper;and Pumpkin Chai, a pumpkin-informed black tea-based chai blend by TeaHaus.No matter which blend you choose — and whether you sweeten it with a dollop of raw honey or something else or nothing at all — and whether you stir in a splash of over-the-top sweetened condensed milk or half-and-half or simply milk — crisp autumn days are the perfect time to indulge in a steaming cup of chai!And just maybe a cookie or two!
Sources: Advances in Environmental Biology (2012):2611ff.; Emirates Journal of Food and Agriculture 27.8(2015):610ff.; Nutrition Journal 14(2015):48; Veterinarski Arhiv 88.1(2018):59ff.; A Thirst for Empire, by E. Rappaport, Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2017.