I remember the first time I had chai in an Indian restaurant. I was transported to an imaginary spice market, sitting in the shade, watching the crowds flow by, while a merchant tried to convince me that his turmeric was worth the extra money. Good chai is exotic, creamy, sweet, spicy and invigorating, all at the same time.
A certain overpriced coffee purveyor, which shall remain nameless (with a green and white logo) serves a concoction they blithely call “chai.” It comes from a liquid concentrate which is then mixed with steamed milk. When I’ve tried it, all I could taste was the sweetener (I’ll give them credit, it is sugar and not corn syrup) and very little tea or spices. In a quest to duplicate that first chai experience, I decided to make some for myself. It turns out to be incredibly simple and I will most likely never buy chai from a coffee bar again.
First, a little history. The word “chai” simply means tea in Hindi, Punjabi, and actually, many other languages around the world. Tea has grown in India since prehistoric times, in particular in the region of Assam. But until much more recently that you might think, tea in India was seen as an herbal medicine, not an everyday beverage.
India was part of the British Empire from 1858-1947. At the time, the British were prodigious drinkers of tea, consuming about one pound of tea leaves per person, per year. The majority (90%) of that tea was coming from China, expensively imported by the East India Company. As soon as they came into power in India, the British began to cultivate tea plantations there, in order to have more direct control over the source of their favorite beverage. They also grew tea in Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka). By 1900 50% of the tea drunk in Britain came from India and 33% from Ceylon.
What does this have to do with chai in India? Once tea became big business in India the usual trade organizations grew up around it. Specifically of interest in this story is the Indian Tea Association, founded in 1881. Beginning in the early 20th Century, the Indian Tea Association began a campaign promoting tea to Indians. The organization encouraged employers to give their workers tea breaks, and it supported chai wallahs (tea sellers) at strategic locations such as railway stations. Initially, the tea sold by the chai wallahs was the same as you would find in Britain, black tea with a little milk and sugar. The Indian Tea Association did not approve of any deviation from this model. Over time, independent chai wallahs started popping up and they put a local spin on this new beverage by adding Indian spices and boiling all the ingredients together, including the tea. Besides inventing a new drink, this was a way for the chai wallahs to save money and buy fewer tea leaves. When tea leaves are boiled, the end product is strong and bitter, but this is tempered by the addition of spices and boiling in a mixture of milk and water. To distinguish this new, exciting drink from the British version, Indians began to call it masala chai which means “spiced tea.”
Before we look at the recipe, take a moment to watch this lovely short film by Nick Higgins of a holy man brewing masala chai over a twig fire in New Delhi.
Makes 2 small cups
There are just about as many recipes for masala chai as there are people in India, so feel free to experiment with different spices, amounts of milk and sugar, and cooking time until you get something you like. Other popular spices include star anise, fennel, mint leaves, liquorice, and saffron. One tip: don’t skimp on the sugar, it brings out the flavors and counteracts the bitterness of the tea.
1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
2 whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
2 whole black peppercorns
2 cardamon pods
1 tablespoon of black tea (I like to use Assam)
1 1/4 cups water
1/3 cup milk
2 tablespoons brown sugar (turbinado or demerara are nice)
Lightly crush all of the spices. Put the tea, spices and water in a pot and bring to a rolling boil. Turn the heat down and let it simmer for about 3 minutes. Add the milk and sugar and stir.
Bring the mixture to a boil again. As soon as the milk begins to foam up the sides of the pot, remove it from the heat and strain through a fine mesh strainer into a pot from which you will serve it.