A good cup of masala chai is to your tastebuds what a fine piece of Indian fabric is to your eyes: complex, colorful, discreet, and alluring. And potentially very expensive. If you buy a prepackaged mix (like the bricks at Starbucks), you will pay a Raja's ransom, but excellent masala chai is something you can make at home. Before I reveal the recipe, a few notes about tea in India.
When I think of a drink to go with Indian food, one of the first things I think of is masala chai---the spicy, milky, sweet drink that complements the flavors of the meal. India is the world's leading consumer of tea by volume (23% of total) and the world's leading producer, according to World of Tea. But although tea is thought to have originated near India's borders, and has been consumed in China and Japan for hundreds of years, tea cultivation and drinking was not widespread in India until the British colonial era. During the early 19th century, the British East India Company was looking for an alternative to China, and after a long and extensive agricultural effort, tea was cultivated in the Assam region of India, with the first successful introduction into England in the 1850s. After tea became a key cash crop in India, the locals started drinking it, and adding spices was a natural progression.
The story of tea in India is told in much greater detail in A History of the World in Six Glasses, by Tom Standage (highly recommended!), and also in less detail at Stash Tea and Info Please.
There are many ways to make this, and here I list two: a relatively simple one, and a complex and messy one.
(Unit conversion page)
- Mix 4 t. sugar with 2/3 cup of milk in a mug.
- Bring 2 cups of water to a boil in a saucepan, then add 1 T. of Marc-sala Chai Spice Blend (recipe below).
- Lower heat to medium and let spices simmer for 2 minutes.
- Add 1 T. of unflavored black tea (I prefer Assam or Ceylon), and cover the pan.
- Steep for 3 1/2 minutes.
- While tea is steeping, pre-heat the milk-sugar mixture in microwave.
- Pour the milk-sugar into the saucepan, then strain into a thermos or several mugs.
- In a heavy pot, mix 4 t. sugar, 2/3 cup of milk, 2 cups water, and 1 T. Marc-sala Chai Spice Blend (recipe below).
- Use medium heat to bring to a slow boil --- be careful near the boiling point as the water-milk mixture can quickly boil over!
- Turn off heat, cover pot.
- Let mixture steep for 3 minutes.
- Add 1 T. of unflavored black tea.
- Steep for 3 1/2 minutes.
- Strain into a thermos or several mugs.
Marc-sala Chai Spice Blend
6 allspice berries, roughly crushed
2 T. cardamom seeds (already extracted from pod) (~1/2 oz.)
6 T. roughly crushed cinnamon sticks (~1.75 oz.)
1 T. coriander seeds (~1/8 oz.)
1 T. whole cloves (~1/4 oz.)
20-40 whole black peppercorns
3 T. fennel seed (~1 oz.)
Cinnamon Hint: a tortilla press works great to crush the cinnamon sticks, as shown in the photos below. Just put the sticks into the press, aligned perpendicular to the handle, then crush away. The resulting shards will be much easier to break in the mortar or by hand.
Cardamom Option: I have had good success using cardamom powder instead of seeds. But I have not determined how to use the whole pods in the mix.
During the time that my Marc-sala chai post has been steeping in my drafts folder, I have seen a few other posts about masala chai that are worth checking out for other perspectives on masala chai indredients and techniques: Chai-Spiced Kulfi from Nupur, Masala Tea from Indira, and Kashmiri chai from Brett.
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