Never much of a coffee drinker, I’ve always gravitated toward tea usually unsweetened glasses of ice tea, what we called “Sun Tea” growing up, or a piping hot cup with a spoonful of honey to ease a sore throat or a bad mood. When “chai lattes” became popular at trendy coffeehouses, I discovered something that I very much enjoyed. While everyone else was ordering coffees with made-up size names, I would defiantly order a “large” Chai Latte and the sweet spiciness made me happy. That is, until I went to India and had a sort of chai epiphany. I was embarrassed that I actually liked the hastily concocted “lattes” made with a boxed concentrate back home. This, now this, was something else entirely.
Every morning started with several steaming cups of the most beautifully spiced tea I’d ever tasted. Every shop we entered, we were presented with a cup of masala chai as it’s typical for shopkeepers to offer customers a cup of tea. We had been warned that it is considered impolite to refuse so we sat awkwardly on little stools, smiling a lot and muttering niceities which usually resulted in more tea. Every meal, every snack involved a cup of chai. In the streets of every town and city, there were chai wallah’s set up everywhere – on makeshift tables, on a blanket laid out on the sidewalk, on car hoods, on crazily crafted bicycle contraptions; each with a pot or two, a few jars of spices and a small propane burner brewing up something fantastic. Some chai wallah’s made a great show of it, tossing the hot mixture back and forth between two pots. Some just went about their business quietly, with a shy smile, but you could tell by the line of people waiting that you should wait too. In every case, whether in a hotel, street or cafe, it was delicious and far above what I’d ever had back home in those hipster coffee shops. I drank A LOT of tea in India.
Bright tasting, sometimes rather sweet, often a touch spicy, it was a flavor that was distinctly un-boxed. The best were lightly sweetened but with a slight pungency that could only come from fresh spices. “Masala Chai” literally means “mixed spice tea” and those spices vary from both vendor and region though they typically contain cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, pepper and ginger simmered with black tea, lightly sweetened and mixed with milk. Some wallahs add a distinct ingredient such as garam masala, saffron, cumin or instant coffee in an attempt to stand out but I found I like the traditional mix just fine.
The tea is traditionally a black Assam loose-leaf tea, though my spice merchant insisted a black Orange Pekoe was his favorite. Some regions use a green tea and I’ve made it with everything from the traditional Assam to Earl Grey. I’ve even made it regular ‘ol Lipton teas bags and ground spices when faced with a poorly stocked pantry and it worked. The one thing I do not like is a pre-made “Chai” teabag. I don’t know what exactly is in those things but they are not good. Blech.
I learned the only way to recreate this delicious flavor was to do it myself and over time, I learned just the right combination for me. Below is the “recipe” I like best but experiment and determine the combination that works for you. If you like a stronger spice kick, increase the quantity or let it steep longer. Make extra, strain and store the base liquid in the fridge for a quick glass of masala chai whenever you like.
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: WALLAH AWAY THE MORNING. This is the perfect weather (well, Chicago anyway) for this beautiful elixir. There’s something so warming and healing about all those spices, freshly ground and infused into a delicious drink. This is far and above the boxed concentrates on the market and you can customize it any old way you want to. If you want a thicker, concentrate-type liquid, just steep the spices, strain and then reduce the liquid down until it’s slightly syrupy. As long as you don’t add the milk, it should last in the fridge for some time. Get your sari out, curl up on the couch with a warm mug and watch that Bollywood movie you’ve been dying to see. Because that happens.
Side note: I took over 1600 pictures during my travels in India and not one, not a single one, was of a chai wallah. What the hell? They were everywhere. How in the world did I blow that one? Guess I’ll just have to go back to get the pic.
On this blog three years ago: Parmesan Black Pepper Crackers, Pretzel Rolls (my most popular post ever)
On this blog two years ago: Guinness Stout Floats
On this blog one year ago: Corned Beef & Potato Pancakes, Liege Sugar Waffles
Other posts on India: Adventures in India
makes two nice cups or one large mug
I prefer whole milk but this is OK with 2% or even skim. Traditionally, masala chai is always served warm but find it just as delicious cold, over ice.
8 whole cloves
4 whole green cardamom pods
1 whole cinnamon stick
1/8 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
½” piece of fresh ginger, roughly chopped
2 Tablespoons sugar (or honey)
2 cups water
½ cup whole milk
3 Tablespoons loose black tea
- In a mortar & pestle or on a sheetpan with a good heavy skillet, roughly crush the cloves, cardamom pods, cinnamon and peppercorns just to break everything up.
- Add the ginger and give it a good bashing.
- Add the spices and sugar to a small saucepan with the water.
- Bring to a boil, remove the pan from the heat and let steep at least 5 minutes or longer for a stronger flavor.
- Bring back to a boil and off the heat, add the tea and let steep for 3 minutes. Do not over-steep or you risk releasing some of the bitter tannins in the tea.
- Strain the mixture to remove the spices and tea leaves. (At this point, the liquid can be refrigerated for longer storage. Use cold or reheat before adding the milk.)
- Over medium-high heat, bring the milk to a boil.
- Combine the warm (or cold) milk with the warm (or cold) chai mixture and serve.