Monday, August 16, 2010

Chai Masala

One of the best things about writing about eating, drinking & being merry are the meals, beverages, recipes & experiences that people share with me. Recently one of you, my dear readers, shared with me not only a shipment of Indian spices, but also some family recipes to go with them. One such recipe was for her mother-in-law's tea.

After I looked through the recipe and noted the mixture of spices, I emailed her to ask if this would be considered "chai tea", or if that was something completely different. Turns out, "chai" is simply the word commonly used for tea not only in India, but also in Iran & many other countries around the world. Who knew?!
In fact, "chai" usually describes a spiced, milky tea. Some terms that might ring a bell are Chai Masala (Tea Spice), or a Chai Latte (tea with steamed milk)

Historically, chai is viewed as an herbal medicine, rather than a beverage sipped for fun. Some recipes still used come from Ayurvedic (traditional Indian medicine) texts. And speaking of "recipes", for being such a traditional beverage, there really is no fixed recipe or preparation method. Indian markets all over the world sell their version & brands of spice blends, although many households blend their own, & methods vary from house to house.

There are however, four basic components:

Tea: A strong, black tea, such as Assam is the base for chai.

Sweetener: Anything from white, brown, palm or coconut sugars, as well as honey can be used as a sweetener.

Milk: Whole milk is traditionally used for richness & is mixed about 1/4-1/2 parts milk with water. You may come across a chai that has condensed milk working to combine the milk & the sweetness.

Spices: The "masala" usually consists of cardamom as the dominant spice along with cinnamon, fresh ginger, black pepper & cloves. In Westeren India, you might see almonds, saffron, salt, nutmeg, rose flavoring (from steeping the petals) & licourice root as potential ingredients.

The method is to simmer the tea, sweetener, milk & spices together and then strain the spices & loose tea out before serving as opposed to steeping them in already boiled water. This method does vary based on taste & local custom.

The recipe below comes from M's mother-in-law's kitchen & makes two mugs of tea.
1 1/2 coffee mugs of water
3 tsp. loose black tea
3 tsp. sugar (or more to taste)
1 Tbs. grated ginger (or more to taste)
Boil these ingredients together for a minute or two, then add: 1 mug of milk and bring just to a boil then turn off heat. And then in her mother-in-law's words, if you want to get "fancy":
Add: 1/8 tsp cardamom
1/8 tsp cinnamon
a pinch each of ground cloves & black pepper

I made this and ended up going heavier on all of the spices and then pouring it over ice for a refreshing beverage for the soul. Although I wouldn't mind ambling up to a street vendor (chai wallah) in South Asia & watching this ancient beverage being brewed and handed to me in a steaming cup, having a recipe on hand for something simple & a little exotic will tide me over for now! Thank you for sharing!!

A version of this post was featured on Wine & Food Travel


  1. Cha-iiii, garam garam cha-iii (that's what the chaiwallahs cry out as they peddle on the streets or at the train means "tea, hot hot tea" :))) It's so cool to see this family recipe turned into a well-researched, beautiful blog entry!

  2. ...and one more note: In Indian culture, when anyone comes to your house you serve them tea without fail - it's mandatory for hospitatlity! And if you're visiting family in India as we always are, each auntie you visit serves you a cup. So by the end of the day, if you've visited a relative or two and some family friends, you're swimming in milk and sugar as well as wired on caffeine!

  3. Melinda, Thank you for sharing your recipe & your memories! It's so great to be able to share experiences, cultures & stories with someone I have never even met. You make Swigs & Grinds so much fun for me!

  4. I'm seriously going to give it a whirl!

  5. Kala, my husband actually told me my chai was better than his mom's! From an Indian guy, well, you can imagine...