When you think of spices, you’re probably drawn to memories of pungently aromatic, exotic, savory dishes from Asia, The Middle East, Africa, or South America. But you’ve probably also become familiar with one very famous spiced drink – the chai latte.
The Indian-style chai latte can now be found in almost every cafe in the country. Chai has become something of a coffee alternative (though it does still contain caffeine). But what you may not know, is that it’s actually full of “super spices” with some amazing health benefits.
Chai literally translates as “tea” in several languages; which is why the phrase “chai tea” is redundant. But the chai you’ve become familiar with – that milky, sweet, fragrant, and oddly comforting beverage – is actually really called masala chai, a beverage made from a mix of spices (masala) and black tea (chai).
Tea of Antiquity
Masala chai may have existed as far back as 9,000 years ago, but the version we know came about after the British conquered India and set-up tea plantations in the 1900s. This was when India began to drink black tea for the first time.
Masala chai traditionally consists of the spices cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, fennel, and black peppercorns mixed with black tea and milk. Some recipes do, however, include cloves or star anise. It’s also traditionally sweetened with sugar, but you’ll want to use it sparingly (if at all) in order to retain the maximum health benefits. We now know that excessive sugar consumption can contribute to many health problems and diseases.i
While on the subject of sugar, many chai-based drinks on the menu doesn’t always mean it’s a true masala chai. A vast majority of coffee shops rely on chai-flavored syrup to flavor their lattes, which are packed with sugar. Ask if they brew the real deal from scratch before you order.
So, let’s take a look at some of the incredible “super spice” powers hidden in a real masala chai.
As modern medicine starts to catch up with ancient medicinal beliefs surrounding herbs and spices, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that theses cultures did know a thing or two.
Cardamom, used for its comforting properties for centuries, is found as a small pod with black seeds with a mildly spicy, aromatic fragrance. It’s used often in Indian cuisine – in everything from spicy dishes to desserts and beverages – as well as within the ancient Indian tradition of Ayurvedic medicine.
Cardamom is filled with antioxidants and has been used as a common remedy for stomach aches, and queasiness.1 It’s also been shown to help manage blood pressure and fight bacteria that causes dental cavities. 2,3
A key spice in Eastern medicine, ginger is believed to soothe digestion and boost the immune system, and it has been used to help fight colds, nausea, arthritis, and migraines. Ginger has long been used for all sorts of nausea: from sea sickness to morning sickness. 4
Ginger also contains essential vitamins and minerals like magnesium, potassium, manganese, and vitamin B6, along with a large dose of antioxidants.
In a study of participants with type 2 diabetes, 2 grams of ginger powder per day lowered fasting blood sugar by 12%. 5
Cinnamon has more antioxidants than blueberries, and antioxidants protect skin from free radicals which damage our skin cells and increase the signs of aging. 6
In traditional medicine, cinnamon is used as a treatment in respiratory, and digestive conditions and several studies have shown evidence of the powerful anti-inflammatory abilities of cinnamon. 7,8 Cinnamon has also displayed some potential in regulating blood sugar where an improvement in glycaemic control was seen in patients with diabetes. 9
4. Black Peppercorns
Peppercorns are rich in vitamins and minerals, including potassium, magnesium, and iron. Piperine (which is derived from black peppercorn) has shown to have antioxidant, insulin-resistant, and anti-inflammatory effects in studies. 10
Pepper has also been used for years in Ayurvedic medicine to stimulate the appetite, assist in circulation, and to help maintain both respiratory and joint health. 11
Fennel has been used all over the world in the treatment of such varied conditions as abdominal pains, arthritis, colic, conjunctivitis, constipation, diarrhea, fever, flatulence, gastritis, insomnia, irritable colon, kidney ailments, mouth ulcers, stomach ache, and as a laxative.
A series of clinical studies have also shown that fennel may effectively control some infectious conditions of a bacterial, fungal, or viral nature. 12
Fennel also brings Vitamin C, potassium and fiber to your diet and is often used in modern herbal teas for calming digestion.
6. Black Tea
Black tea is a potent antioxidant, it can help fight inflammation and it may yet prove to have a role in preventing cardiovascular disease. 13 It also has beneficial effects on the gastrointestinal system, by keeping hormones balanced and the gut microflora happy. It’s even viewed by some experts as an antiviral due to its enzyme-inhibiting and receptor-blocking properties. 14 Research has also shown that both black tea’s phenolic and tannin compounds are able to inhibit some types of bacteria. 15
Black tea is also great for dehydration caused by illness or diarrhea. A 2016 study showed that in young patients with acute non-bacterial diarrhea, black tea tablets were an effective way to help manage symptoms. 16
Black tea also contains fluoride, which is required for optimal oral and bone health,and may help to lower our stress hormones. 17 And, don’t we all need less stress?
So, is it tea time?
Here’s a traditional tea recipe for Indian masala chai to get you started. You’ll also need a mortar and pestle or electric grinder to get those spices ground up.
- 8-10 green cardamom pods (you’ll only want the seeds) OR 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 4 peppercorns
- 1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds
- 2 cups lowfat milk or coconut milk
- 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
- 2 cups water
- 5 teaspoons loose black tea or 2-3 black tea bags
1. Grind cardamom, cinnamon, peppercorns, and fennel.
2. Bring milk to a gentle simmer in a saucepan. Stir in the ground spice mixture, as well as the ginger.
3. Reduce heat and simmer gently for about 3 minutes, stirring occasionally.
4. Meanwhile, prepare your black tea in another saucepan using the water and tea leaves.
5. Strain black tea into the hot milk mixture and heat for an additional minute.
6. Stir before serving.
*Use sugar conservatively if you are adding some to taste.
Alternatively, you can also refrigerate your chai mixture and serve ice cold on a hot summer’s day. Or, blend it with a banana for an even heartier chilled milkshake.
When it comes to drinking coffee, tea, or hot chocolate, there is no doubt that a masala chai, made in the traditional manner, is the much healthier alternative. Thankfully, it also tastes delicious too.
The other great things about these spices is that they don’t only have to be used in a super beverage – they’re also a winning combination in other dishes: chai-spiced chicken breasts, chai-spiced pumpkin bars, chai-spiced apple cider, chai-spiced bread, or even chai-roasted almonds. The possibilities are endless!
Want more spice health news? Keep reading on the Spicefit blog here: