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It's finally October, and the chill in the morning we now feel is the perfect pairing for a hot and frothy cup of aromatic chai. Chai, or "chai tea latte" as it's redundantly called by legions of North American girls, is a spiced, milky beverage that warms your body and soul.
To provide you with a brief history of chai, around 1835 the British set up tea farms in Assam, India; camellia sinensis, or black tea, had been cultivated by the Chinese for centuries and they had the global monopoly on it. The British, who REALLY liked this tea, actually smuggled (read: stole) it out of China via a Scottish botanist and supplanted it in India, where they could finally, cheaply, fulfill their tea obsession. For Indians, however, that black tea was still incredibly expensive despite it being grown on their own land, so vendors brought the cost down in the early twentieth century by combining tea with milk and sugar (in a similar vein to how the British drank it) but boiled with their local spices. By the 1960s, with mechanical changes to tea harvesting, black tea was more affordable than ever, and chai became a staple in Indian households because who wants a plain cup of tea when you can literally add a little spice.
According to ancient chai lore, however, the potential origin of the beverage could be as much as 5,000-9,000 years ago when a king in India (when India was made of up various kingdoms) invented the stage 1 concept of chai (boiling the spices) as Ayurvedic healing medicine, no milk or sugar or tea were added.
Chai is traditionally prepared on a stovetop; spices can vary, but commonly include green cardamom, cinnamon sticks, star anise or fennel seeds, whole black peppercorns, ginger, cloves, coriander seeds, etc. the spice combinations are endless! The technique differs from person to person as well; some will boil their spice blend in water, then add milk and simmer for a bit before steeping with tea, and some will boil their milk and water at the same time, saving the steeping for the end, and sugar is usually mixed in as the last step. Please don't quote me on this because this isn't how your Nani makes the best chai ever; the beauty of chai is how everyone can make their own perfect cup.
The amount of customization with chai has no limit, some people (like my mom) add 2 tablespoons of sugar, which is guaranteed to give you a sugar buzz, others triple the cardamom they use, to make sure that it's the most poignant spice profile in their cup. This is also why ordering chai at cafes can often be a hit or miss; sometimes (as I've found) my chai latte really just tastes like a cup of steamed almond milk with a faint hint of cinnamon. If you ask any Indian or Pakistani person, they'll say the best chai in Toronto is actually at their mom's house in Brampton. They're probably right, because the laborious process of cooking two cups of chai on a stovetop is hard to mimic in our quick-serve café culture which relies on chai syrups, blends, and bags.
However, some places in Toronto really do serve a mean cup of chai/chai lattes, and the following are vetted (loosely, by me), to make sure you're not just getting a cup of hot beige milk.