Chai in many languages is the term used for tea. It comes from cha, the Chinese word for tea. The proper term for this spiced tea is masala chai, masala being an Indian word meaning any spice blend.
Chai is a beverage that is popular in India. In India, chai is available from street vendors called chaiwallahs. These chaiwallahs carry pots of chai and serve it in freshly fired earthen cups that are discarded after use. It is also a family tradition in India to welcome your guests with cups of chai. Each family has their own recipe and preparation method. Visitors to India who have fallen in love with this magical drink have brought it back to their home town. You can buy instant chai that is loaded with sugar and pre-flavored or you can by pre-blended tea and spices either in tea bags or as loose leaves. You can also purchase chai in a concentrated liquid form or you can make your own to your own tastes.
Ingredients and methods for preparing chai vary with each family - there is no wrong way to prepare it. The most commonly used ingredients include;
Cardamom – A wonderfully fragrant spice that comes in two varieties: green and black. Green cardamom is what you want for chai. To attain the full flavor of cardamom you should heat it in a hot pan, stirring constantly until the aroma strengthens.
Cinnamon – A common spice but usually used in ground form. Cinnamon should be used in chunk or stick form for chai. Sticks should be crushed before use.
Cloves – Cloves are another commonly used spice but only whole cloves should be used for chai. Only one or two cloves are enough to infuse a large pot of chai.
Pepper - Pepper is available in black, white and green varieties. Whole peppercorns should always be purchased for cooking and for making chai. Simply grind when needed.
Ginger – Ginger is a root that should be purchased fresh. Ginger has a pungent, almost citrus flavor with warming effects.
Allspice – Allspice is aptly named because it tastes like a combination of pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. The allspice berries should be freshly crushed just before use.
Darjeeling teas are light and refreshing but they do not hold up well to strong spices like cinnamon and ginger. A simple cardamom infusion works well with Darjeeling teas. Nilgiri teas accept flavoring easily and work well for iced chais. Assams have a much more robust flavor and work well for strongly spiced hot chais. Keemun teas are strong like Assams yet they add a slight smokiness with cocoa overtones. Green teas are also used but they do not hold up well to strong spices and must not be boiled or steeped for more than 3 minutes or you will end up with a bitter brew. If you need to avoid caffeine then you have a few options. Decaffeinated teas generally do not have the robust flavor that chai needs. A decaf breakfast blend will offer the best flavor. Another zero caffeine option is Rooibos, an herbal tea that is readily available.
The options for sweetening chai are as varied as chai itself. Regular white sugar works fine in chais but does not add anything but pure sweetness. Unprocessed sugar, aka Turbinado sugar, has more flavor than white sugar and adds a depth to chai. Molasses sugar, dark and unrefined, is excellent in chai. When using honey it is important to use orange or clover honey (the bees used nectar from orange or clover flowers) for the stronger flavor. Sweetened condensed milk is frequently used to add sweetness and a caramelized milky flavor.
There are many brewing options with chai. Generally you start by brewing your spices and sugar to pull as much flavor as possible. This normally takes about 6 minutes. People who like a very strong tea flavor add their tea right away with their spices. But don’t do this with Green tea, as you’ll end up pouring the bitter tasting batch down the drain. After steeping your spices, add milk and bring to almost boiling. Add tea and turn off the heat. Allow the mixture to infuse for 3 to 5 minutes. Strain and serve in prewarmed cups. Do not be afraid to garnish your chai with whipped cream and a sprinkle of cocoa or cinnamon. You can also chill your prepared chai and blend it with ice cream to make a delicious cold chai drink.
Masala Chai Recipe
4 tsp loose tea, usually black
1 piece of dry ginger
3 cardamom pods, crushed
3 whole cloves
1 piece of cinnamon stick
Milk and sugar to taste
Chop up ginger into fine pieces, and break up cinnamon stick. Bring 2 cups of water to a boil, then add tea leaves and all the spices. Let everything brew at boiling for 30 to 45 seconds. Remove from heat, then let steep at room temperature for another minute.
Strain out the tea and pieces of spice. Serve hot and fragrant, with only a touch of milk or sugar.