Known around the world simply as â€œChai,â€ Masala Chai is a spiced, sweetened milky black tea. It originated in India (â€œMasala Chaiâ€ is Hindi for â€œspice teaâ€), but is served around the world in countless variations on a theme. It is one of the most popular beverages in India and is served everywhere â€“ from street-side vendors to luxurious restaurants. Traditionally, Indians welcome their guests with a cup of Chai.
Masala Chai History
Masala Chai dates back to over 5000 years ago ( and some say 9000 years!), when a king created an herbal version in an Indian or Siamese court (or so the legend goesâ€¦ Iâ€™m fairly sure that this is a myth, much like the Chinese tale of Emperor Shen Nongâ€™s discovery of tea).
Tea plants have grown wild in the Assam region since antiquity but historically South Asians used tea as an herbal medicine rather than a recreational beverage. Some of the Chai Masala spice mixtures are still derived from Ayurvedic (Indian herbal medicinal system) medical texts. It was an Ayurvedic concoction from the start and was considered to be a cleansing and vivifying remedy for minor ailments.
Early on, Masala Chai was prepared in a variety of ways, served both hot and cold, and comprised of a wide range of spices. Recipes varied from town to town, neighborhood to neighborhood, and even home to home. Many centuries later (in 1835 I think), the British set up tea plantations in Assam. The black teas produced there seeped into Masala Chai recipes, and Masala Chai as we know it today (tea, sweetener, milk, and spices) was born. It didnâ€™t approach its current popularity level until the advent of CTC (Cut, Tear, Curl) mechanized tea production in Assam in 1960. CTC produces very inexpensive tea that infuses quickly and produces a strong flavor, making it perfect for Masala Chai in the Indian market. Chaiâ€™s popularity spread around the globe, but it still remains a key element of Indian culture today.
Masala Chai in Indian Culture
Masala Chai is a major component of Indian culture today, but it is ingrained in everyday life much like coffee in the U.S. or Europe. The result is that outsiders see it as a big deal, while locals think of it as ordinary! Most people in Masala-Chai-heavy parts of India drink about four cups of Masala Chai a day. Many take a break around 04:00 PM for Chai(Afternoon Tea) and snacks, usually fried Samosas and/or Pakoras, â€œFarsanâ€ (savory snacks from West Indiaâ€™s Gujarat region) and â€œNashtaâ€ (savory breakfast foods) and/or â€œMithaiâ€ (Indian sweets).
There is a â€œfamily traditionâ€ element to Masala Chai in India and neighboring Chai drinking countries. Much like that incredible recipe forâ€¦ whateverâ€¦ that your grandmother gave you and that you KNOW tops any other variation out there, people in parts of India and surrounding countries take great pride in their own recipes and feel that theirs is the only REAL way to prepare Masala Chai ! 😉 It is served to family and guests in the home, where homemakers (or â€œdomestic engineersâ€ as they are called in Indian PC-lingo) spend a great deal of time preparing it, and in public places such as on trains and in the streets.
Chai vendors (known as â€œChai wallahs,â€ which translates literally to â€œtea personsâ€) prepare their tea over an open fire in small stands and stalls. In addition to making and selling tea, they also serve up local gossip and sweet snacks. (Think â€œTea Baristaâ€!) They typically serve the hot tea in small clay teacups called â€œChullarhsâ€, which they bisque fire themselves over an open flame. These cups are thrown on to the ground and shattered when the cup is emptied, and they shortly return to the earth from which they came. (Instant recycling!)
In between serving customers, Chai wallahs call out to the public in typical vendor fashionâ€¦.. â€œHothothothot Chai! Garam garam Chai! You like Chai, madam?â€ That kind of thing 😉 Personally, I find that the call of the Chai wallah is an integral part of the Indian travel sound scape. Almost every Indian train and bus station will be swarming with the friendly Chaiwallahs enticing you to a heavenly cup of tea!
Nowâ€¦Letâ€™s talk about the secrets that make this drink so deliciously addictiveâ€¦
How to make Masala Chai
There are many ways of making the tea but the simplest and the traditional method of preparing Masala Chai is to simmer or boil a mixture of milk and water with loose tea leaf or powder, sweeteners (sugar) and whole Indian spices. Once it is nicely boiled, the solid tea and spice residues are strained off from Masala Chai before serving hot. The method of preparing can vary according to taste or local custom. There is no fixed recipe or preparation for Masala Chai as many families have their own version and style of making the tea.
Thus, though the variations on Masala Chai seem infinite, there are basic components that separate Masala Chai from other types of drinks. Masala Chai contains the following ingredients or variants thereof: black tea, milk, spices, and sugar.
The black tea is usually Assam CTC, but it may be replaced by other black teas, green tea (often gunpowder green, as is the case with Kashmiri Chai). Common black teas used to replace Assam CTC are: Assam full-leaf (which has a robust but somewhat less astringent taste than Assam CTC), full-bodied Ceylon black teas (which range widely in flavor, but are generally astringent and aromatic), Kenyan black teas (robust, but less malty than Assam), Darjeeling Autumnal Flush (which is less robust and malty than Assam, but still full-bodied and flavorful), Nilgiri (best iced or with milder spices, as it has a more mellow flavor and perfume like fragrance) and Keemun (a full-bodied tea from China with fruit, chocolate or smoke notes).
The milk is usually whole, but it may be replaced with half and half, lighter-fat milk, goat milk, buffalo milk, yak milk, or other dairy alternatives. The type of â€œmilkâ€ you use, the proportion of milk to water (typically between 1:4 and 3:2), and the amount of time the milk is heated/boiled will determine how creamy the final concoction is. For extra richness, some people top their hot or cold Chai with whipped cream. For a cold Chai, you can also blend in ice cream!
The spices vary by region and preference, but they typically include a combination of the following: Cinnamon, Cardamom (most flavorful when crushed just before use), Cloves (best when whole, but powdered works too), Ginger (best when fresh) and Peppercorns (black, white, or green). They may also include: Ajwain (a bitter Indian digestive spice that tastes like strong thyme or caraway), Allspice, Bay leaves, Coriander seeds, Chocolate (in the form of unsweetened dark cocoa powder or chocolate bits; this is a Western addition), Cumin , Fennel (also known as â€œSoanfâ€ and other variants in some recipes; should be green; may be ground if desired), Lemongrass (fresh is best), Licorice root (fresh or dried, as in herbal teabags), Nutmeg, Saffron, Star anise, Tamarind (fresh or powdered), Vanilla beans (or, less preferentially, pure vanilla extract; also a Western addition) and/or white Poppy seeds (may be replaced with Western poppy seeds).
A large quantity of sugar is required to bring out the flavour of the spices. In India, the added sugar in Masala Chai usually comes in the form of Jaggery (an unrefined cane sugar from crushed sugar cane stalks, sold in chunks, similar in flavor to molasses and naturally high in iron) or the more expensive Gur (sap from palm trees like date and coconut, used mostly in eastern and southern India). The colors of these richly flavorful and â€œwholesomeâ€ (comparatively, anyway) natural sweeteners range from golden brown to dark brown and the consistency ranges from semi-soft to hard. Unfortunately, they are not easy to find in other parts of the world. However, molasses sugar and Turbinado (unprocessed) sugar come close. Some people also use white sugar. Honey makes a more complex brew. Orange blossom, clover, and Tupelo varieties are all excellent choices. A less common (but decadently delicious) approach is to kill two birds with one stone by using sweetened condensed milk for a milky caramel flavor. Yum!
The traditional Masala Chai is a bracing, strongly spiced beverage brewed with so-called â€œwarmâ€ spices. I hope you taste and enjoy this delicious Indian drink for years to come!