Chai has always been an integral part of our daily lives as well as our get togethers with friends and family. At family reunions, my father had the honorary title of “chai master” and mine was “junior chai master.” We used to joke about how when we were all sick of being doctors, we would retire and open up a small cafe called “Good Chai” and stock it with the best chai in the world and some mighty delicious snacks. That way we could continue the tradition of people coming to our house and sipping mug after mug of chai and letting their problems melt away in the delicious warmth of this wonderful drink.
The Basics of Chai
Chai is a ubiquitous drink in India. It is made across the country and is drunk both at home and at tiny tea stalls on road sides everywhere. Interestingly, this beverage that so many people associate with India was actually not consumed until the time of the British Raj. India grew a large amount of tea in areas such as Assam and Darjeeling, however the majority of Indians consumed coffee. The British East India Company became concerned as they realized they were losing a vast source of income to the Chinese, who had a virtual monopoly on tea sales. Thus, the East India Company began promoting tea to Indians. At first, the Indians were skeptical, and did not want to abandon their strongly flavored coffee. But eventually someone added strongly flavored spices to a sweet and milky tea and masala chai took off! The chai is sweet and spicy with a subtle burn at the back of the throat. It is, in a word, wonderful.
The Tea Leaves
The tea used in chai is very crucial to the final flavor of the tea. Many people assume that they have to use the best quality tea available and use whole leaf Darjeeling or Assam tea, and end up with chai that does not taste quite right. The tea for masala chai is a variety known as “mamri” or “little grain” tea. It is cheap and strong and holds its own against the strong spices in the chai. I recommend making a trip to an Indian grocery store to buy brands such as Lipton Yellow Label Tea, Jivraj No. 9, or Taj Mahal Tea. If you do not have an Indian store nearby, buy Lipton or some other similarly cheap and strong black tea bags from the grocery store. This tea will probably become your “chai only” tea, as it is not necessarily the best to drink plain, but is absolutely wonderful with milk, spices, and sugar.
Much like the recipe for garam masala, this recipe also comes from my paternal great-great grandmother and has been passed down through the generations, giving all of us some pretty incredible chai. While I am obviously biased I really do believe our masala is what makes our chai so special. The chai masala is a delicious blend of cloves, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, and black pepper. All of the spices add a delicious warmth to the chai, and the black pepper and ginger add a subtle heat as well. We have a specific ratio that we follow to make the spice blend, but feel free to adjust it as you deem fit. If you’d like less burn, decrease the black pepper, if you love cardamom, bump that up. The recipe is a great guideline, but feel free to change it as the seasons and your mood change!
Warning–Nerdy science note: The flavors that make spices taste delicious are all aromatic compounds. Aromatic compounds are made of molecules that contain a structure known as a benzene ring, meaning they dissolve best in alcohols or fats. You may have notices this when making drinks, that adding a twist of lemon to a martini adds significantly more flavor in a shorter amount of time than adding a twist of flavor to a glass of water. Similarly, if you make this chai with a non-fat milk, you won’t extract as many flavors from the spices as if you make it with a milk that has some fat. So do your spices a flavor, and don’t make this with skim milk. Nerdy science note done.
Making the Chai
There are many ways to make chai. Some start by boiling ingredients sequentially, and others have strict rules about only stirring the chai 3 times in clockwise circles. The way that my family makes chai is relatively straightforward. We dump all the ingredients in the pot and let it come to a slow boil until it turns a beautiful, rich color. We use loose leaf tea, so it is necessary to strain the tea once it is fully cooked (having a spouted pot will really help decrease spills). Strain the tea, sit back, and enjoy.
Delicious, authentic chai, passed down from my great-great grandmother. Spicy and sweet and absolutely wonderful!
- For the chai:
- 1/2 cup milk (not skim milk, see nerdy science note above)
- 1/2 cup water
- 1 to 2 tsp. sugar, or your favorite sweetener
- 1 tsp. loose tea leaves
- 1/8 to 1/4 tsp. chai masala depending on your spice preference, see recipe below
- For the chai masala:
- **Please see additional notes below before proceeding regarding the total amount to make as well as the amount of black pepper**
- 160 g. whole black peppercorn (or finely ground, same weight. Volume: 1 cup + 7 Tbsp)
- 125 g. whole dried ginger or ginger powder (Volume: 1 cup + 8 Tbsp)
- 50 g. cinnamon sticks (or finely ground, same weight. Volume: 1/4 cup + 2 1/2 Tbsp)
- 50 g. whole cardamom seeds (or finely ground, same weight. Volume: 1/2 cup + 1/2 Tbsp)
- 5 g. whole cloves (or finely ground, same weight. Volume: 1 Tbsp)
- 5 g. nutmeg (or finely ground, same weight. Volume: 1 Tbsp)
- For the chai:
- Pour all ingredients into a (preferably spouted) saucepan. Place over medium heat. Allow to heat until small bubbles appear around the perimeter of the milk. Stir the chai, scraping the bottom to avoid scalding the milk. When the milk comes to a boil, turn off the heat and stir well. Bring to a boil once again, turn off the heat and stir well. Allow to steep for a few minutes. Strain carefully into a cup, and serve.
- For the chai masala:
- If you are using whole spices, weigh out the appropriate amount, place in spice grinder and grind into a fine powder. Mix all the spices together, store in an airtight jar in a cool, dry part of your kitchen. Do not expose to too much sunlight.
The recipe was passed down in grams, I’ve tried to convert it into conventional measurements, but please be aware that the conventional measurements are of the finely ground not the whole spices. Please note, you will get best results if you weigh the spices, it’s most accurate.
The masala recipe makes a LOT of masala. Feel free to make 1/5 of the recipe, that's the easiest number to divide if you have an accurate scale.
Some have said that the recipe is a bit spicy for them. For those of you who are finding the recipe a bit too spicy, feel free to decrease the black pepper. Perhaps start by cutting the amount in half (80g) and then making a cup, if you can think you can tolerate more black pepper start adding in 10 additional grams of black pepper until you get to your perfect spice level!
Do you have extra chai masala on hand? Here are some recipes to help you use it up:
Chai Cupcakes with Lemongrass-Mint Whipped Cream
Spiced Chai Pumpkin Pie
Chai Spiced Granola
Chai with Ginger, Lemongrass, and Mint
Chai Sweet Potato Pie with Vanilla Cardamom Meringue
Almost the entire country wakes up to this drink in some form — brewed in milk or water, with or without sugar. Tea is intrinsically tied to morning rituals. From warming up to a new day, to being essential to conversations; from an accompaniment to refreshments, to endless social engagements, it plays an important social role.
This is what goes into every sip: centuries of colonial plantation history, hours of labour withstanding the sun and the rain, meticulous plucking of the freshest leaves, series of mechanised crushing, rolling, packing; and most importantly — a passion for tea. Only the fresh leaves on top make it to the factory. Labourers are paid a paltry amount of ₹300 for a day that includes nine hours of hard labour.
While the finest leaves are hand plucked, a tea processing machine chops the rest of the leaves to produce regular tea. Leaves are gathered and transported to the factory at the end of the day. At the factory, the leaves are spread on withering troughs, after which a mixture of hot and cold air is passed through them for 12 hours. This removes the moisture from the leaves, before they are thrown into the crushing machine. Roughly 4,000 kg of leaves produce 1,000 kg of packaged tea dust.
Sreedeep is a fellow at CPACT at Shiv Nadar University