How Cha Became Chai

British trade manipulation, espionage, and aggressive marketing changed the trajectory of the once-unpopular beverage in the Indian subcontinent.

GettyImages-1011940274 chai
A chai vendor carrying glasses of tea in Delhi, India (Eye Ubiquitous/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Sukhada Tatke


March 30, 2023

In the mid-17th century, Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza married England’s new monarch King Charles II and changed British customs forevermore. Her stash of dowry included spices, money, and rare treasures — among the latter, loose leaves of tea. 

Catherine was intensely familiar with tea, which Portugal sourced from trade with China through its colony in Macau. Tea was far rarer in Britain, whose residents used tea primarily for medicinal properties, such as treating colds or inducing alertness. The new queen’s daily tea-drinking ritual soon became common knowledge, and British aristocrats quickly adopted the practice. Within a century of Catherine’s arrival, what was considered a luxury product trickled down into the various rungs of society to become a national habit.

By this time, Europe, particularly Britain, had developed a huge appetite for tea, with the latter consuming 40 million pounds annually. The British could meet this demand only by buying more tea from China. China, a self-sustaining kingdom that did not want for much, was not interested unless Britain could pay for it with a lot of silver. Britain knew it had to come up with a plan. 

Through a series of devious manipulations, Britain would start growing opium in the Indian subcontinent and sell it to China for tea. Soon enough, they were also setting up South Asia to develop an addiction of its own: chai. 

Join today to read the full story.
Already a subscriber? Log in