Making Masala Chai

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Stop right there. You might have pinned and attempted enough chai recipes to put you in a chai coma, but this one, this one is the one. Promise. Honed over months while living and working in India, my friend Tom has crafted a spice combination that is authentic with a capital 'A'. 

I’ve been living in India for around nine months and I’ve had my fair share of chai. Or ‘cha’ as it’s known here in Bengali, Kolkata’s mother tongue...

My first encounter of chai as an icon, a legend, was on a slow train working its way up the South Indian coast. Unlike the quiet and quaintly beige English Breakfast, chai crescendoed into my life first through sound and then through the burning eyes of the chai wallah. ‘Chai, chai, chai’ - the call, cutting through the rumble and squeal of the great Indian Railway, was repeated like a mantra. The man standing before me with a huge metal teapot and a tower of cardboard cups presented his tea to me as an imperative, a rite of passage, there was no way I could refuse.

Countless cups later I feel like I’ve become a bit of a connoisseur and definitely got better at saying no to the chai wallahs of the railway - admittedly after about five cardboard thimbles of tea.

But what actually is this chai?

Despite what festival stalls and supermarket pre-mixed powders try to persuade us, chai is nothing more than the Hindi word for tea. And while this comes in a staggering variety of guises, in India, its most common form is simply a cup of very milky black tea. Just little balls of black Assam CTC (crush, tear, chop) tea, boiled in milk and served fresh from the street saucepan into little earthen cups with lots of sugar.

I was expecting every cup of chai in India to transport me back to memories of British summer festivals, tents and hippies, so this revelation came as a bit of a shock. My wife and I have now created a ‘bovine’ scale to rate the taste of the tea, taking into account the different milk flavours that abound. It took a lot of getting used to, and while I do enjoy a cup of everyday chai, it still jars a little when the steaming cup of sweet beige tastes like liquid farm.

But what we think of as ‘chai’ is known here in India as ‘masala chai’. Masala just means ‘mix’, usually a mix of spices. Side note: Garam Masala = Hot Mix. I know!

Even here in the motherland, masala chai recipes vary wildly (some even include such exotica as lychees) and it can be a challenge to get a really good spiced tea. So I set to the kitchen, armed with various spices, and began to experiment. What I’ve ended up with, I think, is the holy grail (or holy ceramic cup) of chai recipes.

It may seem like a lot of effort, but I find nothing more insipid than the powder ‘chai’ mixes on sale back in the UK. In flagrant defiance of speed and convenience, think of this as a sweetly spiced gift to yourself, a little chai-therapy.

Recipe

Full disclosure: This is my version of a masala chai and it makes one cup the way I love it. I’ll admit it’s a fairly labour intensive recipe, but a good masala chai should be savoured because of the slow and spicy love gone into it. I think the most important ingredients for that real chai flavour are fresh ginger and cardamom, so feel free to experiment particularly with the quantities of those ingredients. If you use a tea bag, you can even reuse the spices a few times; tie them up in a small muslin bag to make salvaging them a little easier. Treat yourselves and slurp slowly.

Ingredients

  • 1 mug of water
  • 1/2 mug of milk
  • 6-10 whole black peppercorns (more pepper, more spice)
  • 6-10 whole green cardamom pods, lightly crushed (I always use ten)
  • 4-6 cloves (more cloves, more Christmas)
  • 1 small cinnamon stick
  • a pinch of fennel seeds
  • 2-4 cm of fresh ginger, peeled and crushed (use more if you love ginger)
  • 1 teaspoon of black tea / 1 teabag (I use Assam loose CTC tea for its deep earthy flavour)
  • 1-2 teaspoons of sugar

N.B.The authentic flavour does require a slightly large amount of sugar - do reel that in if you want it to be a bit more healthy and a bit less Indian.

Method

  1. Put one mug of water and half a mug of milk in a thick-bottomed saucepan, add the peppercorns, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, fennel seeds and fresh ginger.
  2. Bring to a boil and then turn to a very gentle simmer. Leave for 10-15 minutes until about a third of the liquid has evaporated.
  3. If you’re using loose tea, add a teaspoon of the tea and then take off the heat. If you’re using a teabag, just pour the liquid through a strainer into your cup and put the teabag in.
  4. Allow the tea to brew for 2-3 minutes.
  5. Strain the tea (if you’ve used loose tea) into your mug. Because of all the bits you may need to take this slowly and stir the strainer occasionally to let the liquid through.
  6. Add the sugar to taste and enjoy!

Let me know how you get on! Have you got a different version or any strange ingredients which you think are simply undeniable? Send me a message: @tomalprice