Etymology 101: The Meaning of the Word Chai

Did you know that the word chai is the word for tea in Hindi? And going back even further, the word chai originally came from the Chinese word for tea, cha or chá.

In North America, we often see menus and shops offering "chai tea" and "chai tea lattes" but technically this is like saying "tea tea" and "tea tea lattes" respectively. It can be a bit confusing! So let's break it all down.


Chai, in India where the famous beverage comes from, is also known as masala chai. In Hindi, masala refers to a blend of spices (there are many different masalas, that differ regionally and for their desired purpose and recipe). For traditional chai, this masala typically contains spices, either whole or ground, like cardamom pods, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and peppercorns and might also include others like fennel seeds, star anise or nutmeg. This spice blend is then combined with a black tea. These are brewed up together, traditionally in a pot on a burner, along with heavy milk and plenty of sugar. The final result is a delicious beverage that is a sweetly spiced, rich and creamy, delicious and indulgent… yet at the same time one that is full of healthful benefits and good for the body and mind.

Our flagship product, Shanti Chai & Co's Original Chai Blend, is a proper masala chai and includes many of the above spices combined with a grounding black loose leaf Assam tea.

Some of the whole spices that make up masala chai include star anise pods, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, black peppercorns, cloves and more. This masala is combined with black loose leaf tea, often Assam tea.
Above: Some of the spices that make up chai masala.

Chai Latte

Latte, or caffe latte, refers to espresso and steamed milk. The concept of chai latte comes from this classic Italian beverage. In a chai latte, a chai concentrate (a syrup made by boiling down water, sugar and masala chai spices and that can be used in beverages, cocktails, baking and other recipes) is substituted for espresso.

Dirty Chai Latte

A dirty chai latte refers to a chai latte that also has an espresso shot (or two!) in it. Or, a traditional caffe latte that has a shot of chai concentrate in it. Either way, this is like a chai on steroids. Get ready for your caffeine intake to skyrocket!

Iced Chai

Pre-brewed chai can be stored in the refrigerator and served later chilled and poured over ice for a delicious iced chai (a great summertime beverage!). A chai concentrate combined with milk or cream can also create a delicious iced chai. These are often referred to as Iced Chai Lattes in coffee houses, even though the milk is usually not steamed at all.

Let's expand on all of this a bit and get into the caffeine content of chai! Traditional chai does, by its very nature, contain some caffeine, since it uses loose leaf black tea. The amount of caffeine in a serving of chai is about the same as that in a regular cup of black tea (45-50mg), and significantly less caffeine than a cup of coffee (100 mg).

Decaffeinated Chai vs Caffeine-Free Chai

Decaffeinated chai refers to chai that uses black tea that has gone through a process to extract the caffeine. Typically, there are still trace amounts of caffeine (about 2mg) per serving. Caffeine-Free Chai, on the other hand, includes no black tea at all. Instead, naturally caffeine free ingredients such as rooibos can be used in place of it. Personally, we find this changes the flavour profile of chai too much, so we prefer and offer a decaffeinated version of our Original Chai Blend. In this blend, our masala is identical to the caffeinated version and we simply substitute a decaffeinated loose leaf Assam tea for our regular CTC-style Assam tea. While some of the robustness of a full strength chai is lost, most of the properties remain in terms of flavour and tasting notes.

Final thoughts on and summary of the etymology of the word CHAI. The word chai translates directly to the Hindi word for tea, and refers to the beautiful sweetly spiced and milky beverage we have all come to know and love. There are plays on this beverage, of course, but for our purposes "chai" refers to masala chai, as traditionally made and enjoyed in its homeland of India. We release calling it "chai tea" as we now know this means "tea tea" and just sounds a little silly (even though everyone will still know what is meant!).

With that, happy Chai drinking!

A cup of traditional chai or chai masala sits outside on a sunny winter's day.
Above: A cup of Shanti Chai & Co's Original Chai Blend, a traditional masala chai, ready to be enjoyed on a chilly winter morning.

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