The first time I had chai, I was in a small rented room in the Chungking Mansion in Hong Kong (notoriously cheap accommodations). Our little cell block area probably had 4 bedrooms, and one little old Chinese lady who sat in the entryway and managed them.
The morning after my arrival, I was still reeling from the shock of my expectations when I booked the place ("Chungking Mansion, my that sounds quite nice") compared to the reality of the place, when the little old lady asked me, "Chai?" pointing to a pot on the stove.
"Sure," I replied, not knowing exactly what was coming, perhaps tea?
What Is Chai Tea?
Boy was I surprised, and in the best possible way. Chai is tea, black tea, but tea steeped in milk, flavored with spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, and star anise, and sweetened with sugar or honey.
This wonderful chai was the best discovery in Hong Kong; I couldn't wait to spend another night in the Mansion, just to have some more chai in the morning. That was over 30 years ago. Since then, chai has become much more popular here.
The other day, my friend Suzanne served up some delicious chai and told me more of her experiences with it while in the Peace Corp in Africa. According to Suzanne, families have chai recipes the way they have curry recipes, every one a little different and each particular to a family.
It can conveniently be made all in one pot, and you can use sweetened condensed milk from a can - important in the tropics. If you really want the authentic experience, drink it from a tin cup. Here is the way that Suzanne makes her chai.
History of Masala Chai
Masala chai has a history that goes back thousands of years in India. It's a staple healthy beverage in Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine. Since its beginnings, it has always been made with a variety of spices. It has been served hot and cold, with and without tea leaves, but always with spices.
The version that became the caffeinated beverage that we know and love today was introduced in India when the British set up tea farms in Assam in the 1900s. But tea leaves were still too expensive for regular Indians. So, the vendors added spices, milk, and sugar to maintain a flavorful beverage while keeping down costs.
When tea became more affordable in the 1960s, masala chai became more popular. It’s now enjoyed all over the world, in part because South Asian migrant workers introducing it to places they moved to for work.
In America, masala chai has just morphed into just "chai," which is a misnomer. Masala chai means "spiced tea" in Hindi, and chai just means tea. So, saying "chai tea" is like saying "tea tea."
The Best Spices to Use in Chai Tea
Masala chai can be made with any number of spices. The usual staple ingredients are green cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, black peppercorn, and fresh ginger. You can add star anise (as we do in this recipe), fennel seeds, allspice, white peppercorn, dried ginger, and/or nutmeg,
Feel free to experiment with combinations until you land on one that you love.
When shopping for spices to make masala chai, look for spices you like in the bulk spice aisle of Indian or other international markets. Spice purveyors online also have a wide selection of options.
A small note, you'll want to use green cardamom pods (not black cardamom, which is a different plant). We use black cardamom for spicing up Indian dishes, when we want to add a bit more of a smoky flavor.
The Best Ways to Brew Chai Tea
The best way to brew masala chai is to is to use fresh, whole spices and crush or grind them down to release their full flavors.
Be sure to use high quality tea, spices you like, and steep for as long as you like. A lot of it is just a matter of personal taste more than what may or may not be considered "correct."
Swaps and Substitutions
- Though masala chai is made with black tea (usually an Assam, Ceylon or Darjeeling), you can use a gunpowder green tea (like they do in Kasimir), a rooibos (for a decaf option), or any other type of tea you like.
- Loose leaf or tea bags? Loose leaf tea will be stronger and usually higher it quality than tea in bags. But tea bags are easy to work with. So, it's really up to you.
- Instead of milk, you can use any non-dairy milk of your choice, like coconut, almond, soy, oat, or any other kind of milk you like.
- Feel free to add whatever sweetener you like. In India, they use an unrefined sugar, called jaggery. Maple syrup, honey, brown sugar, coconut sugar, stevia, any sugar substitute, or even condensed milk all work great.
Tips for Make-Ahead Chai
You can easily double this recipe and boil the spices in a pot or slow cooker. Skip the milk, but steep the tea to your liking. You can add sweetener at this point or just before serving. Cool and refrigerate for up to a week. Simply add your choice of milk before serving heated or chilled.
More Chai Recipes to Try!
1/2 whole star anise
10 to 12 whole cloves
6 to 7 whole allspice
1 heaping teaspoon (or 2 short sticks) cinnamon bark
6 to 7 whole white peppercorns
1 cardamon pod, opened to the seeds
1 cup water
4 cups whole milk
2 heaping tablespoons high-quality, full-bodied broad-leaf black tea (Ceylon or English Breakfast)
Sugar, to taste
Boil the spices in water:
In a 2-qt saucepan, add spices to 1 cup of water. Bring to a boil. Remove from heat and let steep for 5 to 20 minutes, depending on how strong a spice flavor you want.
Add milk and simmer:
Add 4 to 6 cups of whole milk to the spiced water. If you don't have whole milk, you can also use non-fat or low-fat milk. Just add some cream to it, a few tablespoons to your liking. Bring the milk and spice mixture just to a boil and remove from heat.
Add tea and steep:
Add tea and let steep for 5 to 10 minutes, depending on how strong your like your tea. (Option at this point - reheat to a simmer and remove from heat.)
You can add sugar at this point, or serve without sugar and let people put the amount of sugar in they want. Traditionally, sugar is added before serving.
Strain and serve:
Strain into a pot, and serve. Add more sugar, to taste if desired.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 3 to 5|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 7g||9%|
|Saturated Fat 4g||19%|
|Total Carbohydrate 13g||5%|
|Dietary Fiber 1g||4%|
|Total Sugars 11g|
|Vitamin C 1mg||5%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|