Saturday, April 08, 2006

VRC: Most Requested Recipe - Masala Chai

While catching up on my RSS feeds today (I use the Sage add-on for Firefox), I ran across Alysha's Virtual Recipe Club at The Savory Notebook, and this month's event inspired me to finally finish the first part of a post I have been working on for a while. So here it is, my most requested recipe, masala chai. Or as I call it: Marc-sala chai.

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.

Marc-sala Chai
There are many ways to make this, and here I list two: a relatively simple one, and a complex and messy one.

Method 1:
(Unit conversion page)

  1. Mix 4 t. sugar with 2/3 cup of milk in a mug.
  2. Bring 2 cups of water to a boil in a saucepan, then add 1 T. of Marc-sala Chai Spice Blend (recipe below).
  3. Lower heat to medium and let spices simmer for 2 minutes.
  4. Add 1 T. of unflavored black tea (I prefer Assam or Ceylon), and cover the pan.
  5. Steep for 3 1/2 minutes.
  6. While tea is steeping, pre-heat the milk-sugar mixture in microwave.
  7. Pour the milk-sugar into the saucepan, then strain into a thermos or several mugs.

Method 2:
  1. 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).
  2. Use medium heat to bring to a slow boil --- be careful near the boiling point as the water-milk mixture can quickly boil over!
  3. Turn off heat, cover pot.
  4. Let mixture steep for 3 minutes.
  5. Add 1 T. of unflavored black tea.
  6. Steep for 3 1/2 minutes.
  7. Strain into a thermos or several mugs.
(cooking technique from one of the Saveur magazine's Saveur 100 issues)

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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Sury said...

Lovely post and some great images (love the kettle!). What a great line this was: "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." Such appreciation for India gladdens the spirit for sure:)

Marc's masala mix has some unusual ingredients for me. I haven't seen allspice being easily available here, so that one's definitely out for me. But coriander seeds? Never heard or seen them being used for making chai. Hmm, trying to conjure what it would taste like. Got to try and find out.

Zoubida said...

I made your chai tonight and I'm sipping it right now as I write this comment. It's simply delicious! No wonder it's your most requested recipe. It's spicy and mellow at the same time, not sure how to describe this better. The sweetness is right on, not too much but not too little neither. I can idientify most of the spices used but none overpowers the blend. Perfect balance!

My husband isn't a chai (or any tea for that matter) lover but after he tasted it in my cup (he was intrigued by the wonderful frangrance when it was steeping), he went ahead and emptied the teapot. You can see pictures of it I just posted on Kitchen Culture.
Thanks for sharing this.

Marc said...

Sury - Thanks for the kind words about my words. The allspice and coriander are "bit players" in the mix, and probably not essential. Sometime during the development of the recipe, I added the coriander to provide a warm undertone to the brew. The kettle in the background is one of my great kitchen treasures. It is a glazed, cast iron Chinese tea pot---elegant and functional--great for keeping warm on a cold night.

Zoubida - Thank you for the praise, I'm glad you and your husband enjoyed the recipe.


Brett said...

Marc, I have to try a bona fide cuppa' marc-sala chai! Sounds great. Great tip on how to crush cinnamon sticks. I never thought of using a tortilla press before. Whenever I crushed cinnamon in the past, I typically sent shards of cinnamon across my kitchen counter and floor.

Manisha said...

Marc, I have a similar press back home in India or rather it was my mother's and is now mine. It's a horrid green and we use it to make puris rather like this one. It's at least 35 years old, if not more! Here's a picture of a more beautiful antique wooden press.

Yahara said...

Marc, This is a very interesting recipe I'd like to try. Can you tell the ingredient portions per 12 oz cup or how many cups your recipe yields? Thanks for sharing your delicious sounding recipe. :)

Marc said...

Yahara -- To make a 12 oz cup of masala chai, the approximate proportions are 1 cup water, 1/3 cup milk, 1/2 T black tea and 1/2 T spice mix.

Unfortunately, I didn't write down what volume of spice mixture the recipe will make. My recollection is about 1 to 1.5 cups, which is about 16-24 servings. Next time I make a batch I'll be sure to record the volume!