Masala Chai

Sweet Recipes, Winter • 11 Dec 2011


Chai has been my most beloved hot drink since college. My best friend and I would routinely escape the chaos of our senior seminars, papers and job applications and seek ephemeral solace in the dusky, dimly-lit basement of the town’s local coffee shop. We’d spend hours discussing romance, friendship and careers over piping hot bowls of pumpkin-spiced chai served under fluffy, weightless clouds of alabaster milk foam.

For me, late fall is chai season. Not only does it kindle nostalgia for my days as a hopeful, nascent undergrad but because chai’s spicy warmth restores the body and soul as the season transitions from crisp and brisk to bleak and raw.

Though I consider myself a tea enthusiast I have never attempted to make chai at home. Over the years I’ve experimented with loose tea but have been apathetic when it comes to chai. Always the hunter, I opt for the indefatigable coffee house crawl, in search of the superlative cup, rather than brew homemade. Chai is simple enough to make and I consider myself a pretty decent cook. And I am most definitely adept at brewing a meritorious cup of tea.

When my cousin David recently suggested I try his much-tweaked, much-loved and much-perfected recipe for chai, I resolved to finally kick my store-bought habit.

Masala chai, an Indian word literally meaning spiced tea, is made by brewing black tea leaves, milk and a sweetener with a potpourri of spices. The spice mixture varies from region to region in India but often includes cinnamon, cloves, ginger, cardamom, star anise, fennel, and pepper. My cousin uses cinnamon, green cardamom pods, fresh ginger, cloves, white peppercorns and star anise.

The tea base for traditional Indian chai is usually a robust Indian black tea such as Assam or Darjeeling. David also swears by Maté or Rooibos but I stick with Assam for my brewing experiment.

Making chai is a spirited, magical process. Crushing the spices with mortar and pestle releases a fresh, piquant scent. Watching the tea leaves bloom and unfurl in the boiling liquid is a thing of beauty, relaxing and addictive.

Sweeteners range from white refined sugar to brown sugar to honey to coconut sugar. One stop shoppers can opt for condensed milk, both the dairy and the sweetener rolled into one. Personally I prefer my chai with frothy whole milk and unrefined sugar.

David’s recipe is an intricately aromatic tea with high notes of cardamom and undertones of tongue-tickling white pepper and cloves. While he adds milk directly to the pan at the tail end of the process, I upped the ante and added milk foam using food science writer Harold McGee’s foolproof technique of vigorously shaking milk in a mason jar until frothy, and microwaving until the foam sets.

Remember, this is not Starbucks’ chai, which I find cloyingly sweet and overly spiced. True chai is subtle and elegant, almost understated in its flavor.

Masala Chai Latte

7 cups water
1 5-inch cinnamon stick, broken into pieces
2-inch long piece of fresh ginger, peeled
12 green cardamom pods
5-6 cloves
6-10 white peppercorns
2-3 star anise
1 vanilla bean
1/2 cup loose tea leaves, such as Assam or Darjeeling
Milk to taste, or about 5 cups
Honey or sugar to taste

1. Bring water, cinnamon and ginger to boil in a large saucepan. Simmer until fragrant and until the cinnamon starts to turn the water a light brown.

2. Using a mortar and pestle, finely grind the cardamom pods, cloves, peppercorns and star anise. Add the spices and vanilla bean to the simmering water.

3. Simmer another 5 minutes, or until fragrant, and add the tea leaves. Remove pan from heat and let the tea steep for about 4 minutes.

4. Strain the tea through a very fine mesh strainer into another clean saucepan. Add milk and honey or sugar to taste.

5. Alternatively, pour milk into a mason jar with a lid. The milk should fill the jar about halfway at most to account for the foam. Shake the jar vigorously until the milk is frothy and doubled in size, about 30 seconds. Remove the lid and microwave for 30 seconds. Pour as much milk as you want into your cup of chai and then scoop the foam on top.

6. Pour leftover tea into mason jars and store for reheating. Chai flavor improves with time.

Yield: Without milk, makes about 6-7 cups spiced tea.

6 Responses

  1. Love this blog entry and all the photos. We have an awesome tea shop here in Fort Collins. It’s called Happy Luckys Tea House and Treasured!

    • Shantel, I’m envious of your local tea house. It looks incredible. We have a great one here in Park Slope- next time you visit I will take you. It is one of those places that has every tea, every spice, every hot sauce, etc, tucked into the smallest of spaces. I’ve become a regular!

  2. Ash

    Beautifully written from the experience to the process of making Chai! I gave a talk earlier this year on why Chai Lattes at coffee shops are fake: and I’m visiting India later this month and am going to document the differences in recipes of a few different regions. It’s so fascinating to me how there’s a simple set of ingredients and there’s a few spices you can mix in different proportions or preparing in slightly different ways can change the whole flavor of the chai you end up with.

    I’ll have to definitely try your recipe for it soon!


    • Thanks so much, Ash. I can’t wait to watch your youtube video and get back to you. Should I personal message you? I would love to talk more about your chai experience in India. I’m curious to try several chai recipes and do a side by side taste test. I do love that my cousin adds a warming vanilla bean, something I’ve never seen.

  3. Alex

    Having recently finished three months in India, I must say that while I drank gallons of chai everywhere from on the train, to Kashmiri souvenir shops, to the street-side stalls, David’s recipe wins. Most Indian chai is just milk tea with loads of sugar. Masala chai is generally more interesting, but still less than complex, with a single flavor usually coming through as the focal point–ginger or cardamom or clove, for example. I like the medly of spices and a little peppery bite. Guess I’ve been spoiled by my brother’s chai perfectionist madness…

  4. Appreciating the dedication you put into your website and in depth information you present. It’s awesome to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t the same out of date rehashed material. Wonderful read! I’ve saved your site and I’m adding your RSS feeds to my Google account.|

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