A few years ago, I really got into brewing tea at home using loose herbs and tea leaves as opposed to store bought tea bags. Tea bags and mixes are certainly convenient, but what I love most about loose teas is that you can customize the flavors to your taste and create some really beautiful beverages.
Masala Chai, literally translated from Hindi as Mixed Spice Tea, is one of my favorite teas to brew because of its creamy consistency, satisfying spiciness, and intense flavor. I’m still practicing getting it right, but I came up with an easy recipe that’s delicious and fool-proof on days when I don’t feel like experimenting.
creamy consistency, satisfying spiciness, and intense flavor…
Chai’s roots are ancient, spanning the course of thousands of years in the spice laden Indian Subcontinent. Its original use was strictly medicinal for minor ailments in classical Ayurveda―historical Indian medicine. People, families, and institutions had their own interpretation of spice mixtures known as Karha. Each spice and herb would be chosen and prepared with care, contributing to its use and taste. Many mixtures from classical Ayurvedic texts are still in present day use. However, chai’s transformation into the tea we know today combines tradition, colonialism, and business politics.
Wild tea was known to grow in the Assam region. During the early 1830s, British colonists would cultivate this local tea. At the time, however, over 90% of teas in Great Britain were imported from China. In order to offset the Chinese monopoly on the industry, the British East India Company took advantage of laws such as the Waste Land (Claims) Act of 1863 and the Forest Acts of 1865 and 1878, and the formation of the Imperial Forest Department in 1864.
chai’s transformation into the tea we know today combines tradition, colonialism, and business politics…
These legislations empowered the royal government to take control over any portion of Indian land that was considered “uncultivated” despite the existence of indigenous peoples. Since agricultural lands produced substantial amounts of profit, systems were put into place to validate legal ownership, even if it meant purposefully not recognizing rural villagers and their homes as valid occupants. So, for the sake of capitalism, perfectly rich lands that the locals used to sustain their livelihoods were effectively stolen and turned into tea plantations by the British East India Company.
By 1900, Chinese imports of tea decreased to 10%, and was largely replaced by teas grown and imported from British India and British Ceylon―present day Sri Lanka. In India, the black tea was not very popular because it was expensive. In a response to elevate sales, the British owned Indian Tea Association pushed for “Tea Breaks” for workers, which did increase demand for the tea, but with a twist.
As tea breaks pushed textile, mine, and factory workers to drink more tea, Chai Wallahs appeared, especially around railroad stations. Chai wallahs are vendors who serve tea and still exist today all over India. To keep the price of tea low while enhancing its flavor, chai wallahs added additional spices, sugar, and milk to the tea. Tea sales did increase, but they eventually stalled after chai wallahs made the tea more economical. The Indian Tea Association disapproved of the dilution of their product, but present day masala chai was born, and has remained a popular beverage to this day.
There are as many recipes for chai as there are families, so it is difficult to trace an “authentic” variation of the tea. My own interpretation is based on a version I found some years ago that I changed substantially to taste like the chais I’ve had at Indian restaurants.
This version is far more flavorful than anything in a tea bag. I use a lot of fresh ginger and cassia cinnamon sticks. I specifically use cassia cinnamon because its flavor and aroma is sweet, strong, and spicy―a flavor you don’t get with Ceylon cinnamon. However, if the cinnamon flavor is overpowering for you, you can use fewer cinnamon sticks or you can use a weaker variety such as Ceylon.
I also begin with whole spices so I can grind them up myself. Spices begin to oxidize and lose their flavors once they are ground up, so I prefer to purchase them whole and grind them later to get the strongest flavor out of them. Some people add fennel to their mixture, but I prefer star anise for that slight liquorish note.
begin with whole spices…grind them later to get the strongest flavor…
A unique ingredient I love to add are fresh bay leaves. You can make do with the dried ones, but the fresh ones have a sweet, subtle, floral taste that rounds out the rest of the tea. Bay leaves on their own make fantastic tea, but I like to add them to my home brews for a little more dimension.
My black tea of choice for the chai is Darjeeling, which has fruity and floral notes, but you can use any black tea you like. Assam, which is strong and malty (like English Breakfast tea) is another tea often used to brew masala chai.
I love heavily spiced masala chai with a smooth, creamy finish, so I sweeten and thicken my chai using sweetened condensed milk. You can also add regular milk and sugar to taste, but I find sweetened condensed milk adds just the right amount of sweetness and consistency to the tea.
It takes a minimum of 3 hours to brew the tea because we’re slowly steeping it and not boiling it. Boiling the tea destroys the flavor, leaving you with bitter liquid or bland tea. Ideally, let the tea brew for 5 hours to concentrate the flavor. Make this on a lazy day when you don’t plan on leaving the house!
- 12 1/2 Cups (100oz) Water
- 10 to 15" Fresh Ginger chopped or grated
- 6 to 10 Cinnamon Sticks depending on how spicy you like your tea.
- 15 Whole Cloves
- 15 Green Cardamom Pods
- 4 Black Peppercorns
- 2 Whole Star Anise
- 5 Fresh Bay Leaves (Optional) torn
- 2 tbsp (35g) Darjeeling Tea (or your favorite black tea) loose or in bags
- 14 Ounces (397ml) Sweetened Condensed Milk
With a mortar and pestle, gently crush the cloves and cardamom pods until they are a rocky powder. Alternatively, you can also crush the spices with the side of a knife.
Fill a large stock pot with all of the ingredients except for the Darjeeling tea and condensed milk. The Bay Leaves are optional, but they add a nice layer of flavor to the tea.
Bring the tea to a simmer, and then turn the heat down to low-medium. The tea should not simmer, but steam at the surface.
Let the tea steep for a minimum of 3 hours, but up to 5 hours uncovered or until the liquid has reduced to half of its original volume. The liquid must reduce to half of its volume, or else the tea will be watery. Turn off the heat.
Steep the Darjeeling tea into the spiced tea for at least 15 minutes.
Using a chinois or fine mesh strainer, strain out the tea into another clean large pot. You may have to strain a second or third time to remove all of the herbs. With a spatula or whisk, mix in the sweetened condensed milk.
Serve hot or chilled. Whipped cream dusted with nutmeg or ground cardamom and cinnamon can be added for a special treat!
Shelf Life: 5 Days in refrigerator.
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Rosen, Diana. Chai: the Spice Tea of India. Pownal, Vermont: Storey, 1999.
Sara Perry (1 Aug 2001). The New Tea Book: A Guide to Black, Green, Herbal and Chai Teas. Chronicle Books. p. 40. ISBN 9780811830539.
“India, the largest black tea consumer in the world”. Retrieved 5 January 2018.
Common lands made ‘Wastelands’ – Making of the ‘Wastelands’ into Common lands https://dlc.dlib.indiana.edu/dlc/bitstream/handle/10535/9074/SINGH_0217.doc.pdf
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