Are Chai And Tea The Same Thing?

According to National Geographic, tea is the most popular beverage on the planet aside from water. The caffeinated brew is consumed at the astonishing rate of 6 billion cups a day, a total that adds up to 187.5 million gallons (via The Tribune), or nearly 4.7 million bathtubs' worth of liquid (per U.S. Geological Survey).

Not only are we consuming tea at a rate rivaling rabbit reproduction, but the delectable beverage also plays a huge role in culture. According to Good Life Tea, wars have been waged in its name. Unlikely friendships have been forged over cupfuls in quaint cafes and during sophisticated brunches. It could be said that tea is a culture in and of itself.

But do we love tea so much that we say its name twice each time we place an order for it at a restaurant? This is the question posed by the existence of chai tea. Are chai and tea really just the same thing, or are there some differences between the two? The answer is yes, but also no.

They're the same word in different languages

Due to its global popularity, people hailing from different parts of the world took to calling this popular steeped beverage by slightly different names. Tea 101 reports that in India, the literal translation of the word chai is indeed tea.

According to Mental Floss, whether a trader used the word "chai" or "tea" depended largely on the trade route they traveled from their country of origin. The Portuguese, whose trade route flowed through Macao, took a Cantonese pronunciation of chai, which sounded a bit more like "cha" or "shai." Travelers frequenting overland routes through the Arabian Peninsula, Russia, and Central Asia made use of the traditional word chai. However, the Dutch, from Spain to Italy, Germany to France, and across Western Europe took a liking to the word te, or as we know it today, tea.

From this perspective, calling a drink chai tea is like saying hot chaud, queso cheese, or chocolate cioccolato. It might sound as fancy as the little spoon served on the side, but it's really just the same word in two different languages. However, like the cultures that originated the names, these two beverages are slightly different in presentation. Tea, as we have come to know it, is a loose-leaf drink sweetened by a touch of milk. Chai, on the other hand, is generally stronger, more aromatic, and steeped in a wide variety of spices.