Masala Chai, the Flavors of the Subcontinent in a Cup

birch trees in the wind

The wind is howling like a banshee morning as I write this post. That’s been a common occurrence this winter, but this morning has been particularly bad. The chickens are hiding in their coop, ditching the pleasure of the relatively warm winter and access to the ground for the comfort of a wind-proof shelter. The dog refuses to go out. It really isn’t a fit morning out for man nor beast, so while I am thankful for all those who work hard in such conditions, I am also thankful that I’m not one of them.

I find that my job with the electric company has trained me to wake up at the sound of wind, since wind so often means outages and outages mean I am glued to my phone and computer sending out updates to the media and the membership of our electric cooperative. However, since I’ve been home on sick leave since December, this task falls to someone else – even if my body didn’t exactly remember that at 4am.

Needless to say, I’ve been awake for a while now, and I need something warm, spiced, and caffeinated to keep me going since a nap clearly isn’t in the cards for me. I’ve been shying away from coffee lately though, so my mind instantly turns to tea. But not just any tea. Masala chai, a rich blend of tea and all those lovely spices so evocative of the Indian subcontinent. Whenever I think of the cinnamon, cloves, star anise, and above all the cardamom notes of this creamy beverage, I am instantly transported to my culinary happy place. And this morning, 22 degrees F and winds sustained at 50 mph and gusting to 65, I can truly appreciate that.

“Chai tea” – more on that name later – has become very popular in the United States over the past decade or so, showing up first in trendy coffee and tea houses and now so ubiquitous that Starbucks offers several varieties and every mainstream tea company offers ready made tea bags of the stuff so that people can get their fix more easily. While I usually have some ready made bags on hand, what passes for masala chai in this country isn’t really comparable in richness of flavor to the original. And please, avoid the liquid concentrates – they’re too sweet and tend to taste metallic.

chai spiceschai spices 2

In India, masala chai tends to be served in small metal cups, and a recipe of this size will easily produce a dozen or more of those servings. I enjoy a larger portion, and I usually prefer drinking tea from glass cups when possible. I developed these habits (masala chai and tea in glass cups) back in college, when a good friend from Pakistan introduced me to this magical elixir. Tea became a frequent ritual for us, and one day as his was handing me my tea cup after a long day of finals, I noticed a green cardamom pod floating on the surface. Normally those got filtered out with the other spices, so I was curious and asked about it. He smiled shyly, put his hand on mine, and said, “Back home, we only put the cardamom pods into the cups of the ones we love.” And discretion dictates that on this topic I shall say no more.

A note on the name: Notice that I call this “masala chai.” Americans tend to call this beverage Chai Tea. We Americans are in general a good lot, but do tend to butcher the use of words from other languages. Ask someone from India or Pakistan for “chai tea” and they are likely to think you have stuttered. There, as in most of the world, “chai” means “tea”. “Masala” roughly translates to “spice blend.” So, when you ask for chai tea, you are actually not asking for spiced tea so much as tea tea. And that’s just silly.

Please keep in mind that masala chai, like so many things I love to cook, is more a concept than a firm recipe. There are as many ways to make it as there are people who do. I like this blend, but some days I add more of one spice, less of another, etc. I’ve heard of people putting chili flakes, bay leaves, coriander seed, cumin, fennel, and other “savory” spices in the spice mix, and to each his/her own. Some add their milk at the beginning. Some heat it separately and add it only at service. Others use cream only. Some simply must add a few drops of vanilla extract. Feel free to experiment and create your own signature blend. Above all, enjoy.

masala chai

Ingredients

  • 7 green or white cardamom pods
  • 2 whole star anise
  • 2 cinnamon sticks (of the short 2-3 inch variety)
  • 5 whole cloves
  • 3-4 whole pepper corns (I used white because it’s what I had handy, but black works too)
  • 2-3 coins (slices) of fresh ginger (I used a piece of unground dried ginger, because it’s what I had handy
  • 4 heaped teaspoons of black loose-leafed tea, preferably Assam, Ceylon, or Darjeeling
  • 3 cups of cool water
  • 1 cup whole milk (please, skim just isn’t enough fat here)
  • honey, to taste

(Note: all of these ingredients can be purchased for pennies on the dollar in your supermarket’s bulk food section compared to buying them from the spice and tea aisles – and the bulk containers often move product faster too so flavors will be better.)

  1. Gently crush the cardamom pods to reveal the black seeds within.
  2. Place the water and all spices in a small saucepan (capable of comfortably holding at least 4 cups of boiling liquid with room to stir), and bring to a boil.
  3. Reduce heat to achieve a solid simmer, cover, and cook for 15 minutes.
  4. After 15 minutes your kitchen will smell like a spice shop and the liquid will be tinted a beautiful amber color. Resist the temptation to cook the spice mixture longer, as cinnamon tends to lend an unpleasant sour note if cooked too long.
  5. Add in your tea leaves, cover for 1 minute, then add the milk.
  6. Cover and allow the liquid to return to a near simmer, but not an actual boil. This should take no more than 3 minutes.
  7. Remove the lid and add the honey (I tend to use about 2-3 tablespoons, because this is a sweet beverage, but you can use less if you prefer), stirring to dissolve.
  8. Decant through a fine mesh strainer, either into a warmed tea pot or directly into warmed cups, reserving the cardamom pods for the cups of those you love.

(Note: I love the flavor of cardamom, so I add more than is called for in many versions of this recipe. This also means that it is more likely I will have enough cardamom pods for everyone having a cup, so no one will fee left out. That is, if I share.)

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