Written by Stephanie Langford
My first taste of Indian chai was accidental.
Making our way through the crowded, dusty, vibrantly colorful, animal-filled cacophony known as the Pushkar Camel Fair, we found what our children had been talking about for months on end… a brightly arrayed camel, lovingly decorated for the festivities. Just right for a camel-back ride across the fair grounds.
As I followed along on foot, taking in the sensory overload of it all, I didn’t realize that the camel owner had led us to a small, somewhat obscure stand. “Chai”, he announced. “Would you like some?”
Would I! The strong, silky, creamy, pungent, sweet, and slightly spicy tea has long been a favorite of mine, and having some authentic chai in Indian was something I had been eagerly anticipating.
I watched in fascination as the chaiwallah deftly added water and loose tea to a pot and set it to boil. As the tea heated and began to steep, he measured out a scoop of masala (spices), then began to grate fresh ginger right into the mixture. Lastly, he poured an equal amount of fresh milk, and brought the aromatic concoction to a boil once again.
Gingerly holding the edges of the steaming hot brew in pint-sized plastic cups, we took our first sniff, and then a tentative sip. Mmmmm… now THIS was chai.
Since then, I have learned to spot the chaiwallah shops from yards away, and even our children love to pause during a day of sight seeing or exploring, just to stop and savor a creamy cup.
The best chaiwallahs use the freshest spices, and even froth the tea as they make it. The preferred method for frothing is rapidly pouring the tea back and forth between pots, or using a ladle to repeatedly draw it up and pour it back down, aerating it in the process.
Homemade chai has always intimidated me in the past.
I’ve tried making it with whole spices, like star anise, cinnamon sticks, peppercorns, cardamom pods, etc. Tasty? Oh yes. But my goodness, it’s more time consuming than I care to bother with. In the end, I’d be back to store bought tea bags, which never actually taste like you hope they will.
Making homemade chai concentrate (a large, very strong batch that you store in the fridge to use as you want it) wasn’t any better for me. I lack this very important thing called self control. My concentrate would be gone within a day or two, at most, because once it was already made, I couldn’t help myself.
What I’ve learned during our weeks here in India is that you can quickly and easily whip up just a mug or two of delectable chai, with little fuss or mess.
There are 3 primary things you really need:
- A masala chai spice mix, made up ahead and stored in your cupboard (more on this below).
- Water, milk, sweetener, and a loose black tea of choice (I like Assam or Darjeeling, but other strong black teas like PG Tips or Lipton will do as well, and you can even use it in a bag, if you prefer that over loose).
- A pot and a small mesh strainer (mug-sized is ideal, and this is a kitchen tool that you can use for so many other things besides tea).
It sounds more complicated than it is. Honestly. I used to be daunted by making masala chai, because the whole process seemed so involved. I felt like I had to measure out, crush, and toast the whole spices immediately before making my tea. The gourmet foodie in me said yes. The mom-of-four in me says forget it. I can’t be bothered.
So you can imagine my surprise (and delight!) when I realized that most people here in India actually just use a pre-made spice mix to make incredible chai. Who knew? If using a dried spice mix is good enough for most of the billion some-odd people living in India, it’s good enough for me.
There are umpteen variations on exactly what should be included in a good masala chai mix. Really, it’s up to your own tastes. If you like more of that peppery bite, go for it. Love the tang of ginger? Up the amount. Really enjoy cardamom? Go to town.
This particular mix is just what I've come up with by reading mix labels, checking out various chai recipes online, test-tasting my way through northern India, and playing around with my own mix until I was happy with it.
I will say, the one exception to using just the dry spice mix is that I prefer to add fresh ginger. Fresh ginger really does taste better, and we’ve found it to be one of the hallmarks of a truly great chaiwallah. If ginger root is something you routinely keep in your fridge, I would urge you to leave out the dried stuff, and just grate or chop up a bit of the fresh stuff into the pot each time you make it. It only takes one minute while the water is heating up.
However, if that’s too much trouble and you’d rather not, stick with the dried ginger and it will still taste lovely. The dried slices or chunks of ginger are ideal. You can even use dried ginger powder instead of the larger pieces, if that’s all that you can find, but just use less of it (I haven’t experimented with it, but I’d guess maybe half the amount?).
How to make your Indian Masala Chai spice mix
To make enough dry spice mix to store, so that you'll always have it ready for that fast and easy cup of chai, this will give you about 2 cups.
- ½ cup black pepper
- ½ cup cinnamon
- ½ cup cardamom pods (mine were whole and I cracked them with a sharp knife, but you can use powder or pre-shelled, but then you would want to reduce this amount to about half)
- ½ cup dried ginger pieces (or omit if using fresh)
- ¼ cup whole cloves
You could also add a small amount of nutmeg or star anise, if desired. Those ingredients aren't as commonly used, at least, not in the parts of Indian we've been in, but they are used sometimes and would taste delicious as well.
This recipe makes a delicious and well-balanced flavor. It can be stored for several weeks in a dark cupboard, in an airtight container. A mason jar with a lid would be perfect.
How to make your perfect cup of chai in 5 minutes:
Actually, this recipe makes 2 cups—one for you, one for a husband or a friend. If you want to make just one, simply halve the amounts.
1. Add 1 cup filtered water and 2 heaping teaspoons of loose tea (or 2 teabags) to a small pot and turn it on medium-high heat. You really do need to make the tea strong enough, so that it can carry the spices, so don't be shy.
2. While it’s heating, add 1/2 teaspoon of the dried chai spice mix (and add your freshly grated ginger at this point, if desired-- I chop or grate about 1 inch of peeled ginger for the 2-cup recipe).
3. Once it’s come to a boil, turn off the heat briefly (or just remove the pot). Pour in 1 cup of milk and desired amount of sweetener. About 2 teaspoons is perfect for me (raw sugar or honey are my sweeteners of choice).
4. Put it back on the heat, and bring it to a boil once again, stirring it as it heats (whisking it to aerate the milk is even better).
5. Turn off the heat and let it sit for a minute to finish steeping.
6. Pour into cups, using a mesh strainer to catch the loose tea and spices.
7. Sit and savor your creamy, perfect, homemade chai.
Just so you know, it’s normal to have a small amount of spice settle at the bottom of the cup as you drink it. Just leave the last sip or two, and you'll avoid that part. But it's worth it for the authentic flavor.
Mmm... lovin' my morning cup of chai. Try this method out and ditch the tea bags, ok? You won't regret it.
Do you love chai as much as I do? What is your favorite cool weather drink?
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