As a beverage, chai has become ubiquitous in America, available everywhere from Starbucks to ice cream. However, most of it is an Americanized version of Indian chai. Traditional Indian chai isn’t just a tea bag in hot water — it’s a brewing process that combines a mixture of spices, sugar, and milk, forming a beverage that’s an integral part of Indian cuisine.
First, most of the chai consumed in India is known as masala chai (masala means spice blend in Hindi and chai means tea). A staple in many Indian households and street carts, masala chai can be enjoyed at all hours of the day. Interestingly, while chai is an important part of Indian cuisine, it’s a relatively modern addition. Historically, Indians consumed an herbal beverage called kadha that’s based on a 3,000-year-old Hindu Ayurvedic tradition. Tea, a plant native to China, was introduced to India by the British (a nation famously obsessed with tea) in the 19th century. But for Indians, it wasn’t until the early 20th century that chai was combined with spices, morphing it into the popular beverage it is today.
Since Indian masala chai contains an array of spices, strong black tea is the ideal option. For the best teas, choose Assam or Darjeeling, two very popular and common black teas in India. As an option, you can also make the tea stronger or lighter depending on personal tastes. While tea bags will suffice, loose leaf teas are generally made from higher-quality leaves, producing a better flavor. To save time, you can also make your tea beforehand. Just leave out the milk and place it in the refrigerator when you’re ready to store. To drink, simply heat up some tea with the desired amount of sugar and milk and serve.
Masala chai is traditionally made with an array of spices including cloves, peppercorns, cinnamon, and others. Generally, whole spices are lightly crushed before being brewed with tea leaves to properly fuse the flavors. Ground spices are another option and this powder can be added and mixed into the finished brewed tea. Although instant masala chai packets are available nowadays at many Indian markets, the flavors of the spices will pale in comparison to the traditional method.
What Ingredients Are in Chai Tea?
In India, chai is almost always combined with milk and sugar. Dairy is a large part of the Indian diet and the addition of fresh milk into masala chai is essential for most drinkers. Unlike European style black tea, where warm or cold milk is added to brewed tea, milk in Indian chai is boiled together with the brewed tea.
Because the flavors of masala chai can be strong, plenty of sugar is needed to balance the natural bitterness, making this hot beverage quite sweet. Unlike commercialized American chai, Indian chai is served in small cups instead of enormous, fast-food-style Big Gulps. Because of its high sugar content, some modern and more health-conscious recipes will call for alternative sweeteners such as agave or maple syrup.
This masala chai recipe is courtesy of Sylvia Fountaine, a professional chef, former restaurant owner, and creator of the food blog Feasting at Home. While this recipe calls for whole spices, sugar, and milk, Fountaine has several suggestions for both sweetener and milk. “Instead of the full cup of milk, I typically use a ratio of ½ water and ½ milk. Many prefer the richness of a full cup of milk, so feel free to adjust to your taste,” said Fountaine.
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Total Time: 20 minutes
Yield: 1 large mug
- 3–4 whole cloves
- 1–2 star anise (optional )
- 5–7 peppercorns (optional)
- 1 cup of water
- 2–3 slices ginger (or more! skins ok)
- ½ cinnamon stick – split lengthwise ( use your fingers to separate)
- 1–2 tbsp loose leaf black tea, (or 1–2 tea bags) Or sub decaf black tea
- 1 cup milk of your choice — organic whole milk, almond milk, oat milk, soy milk, cashew milk, hemp milk ( I like unsweetened, vanilla-flavored almond or oat milk)
- 2–3 tsp (or more or less) maple syrup, honey, sugar or alternative. (Sugar is traditional, but I prefer maple.)
- Lightly crush cardamom pods, whole cloves, star anise, and peppercorns, and place in a small pot with 1 cup of water. Add ginger, cinnamon, and black tea. I like to muddle the ginger a bit right in the pot.
- Bring to a boil and turn the heat off (don’t continue to boil the tea, it may get bitter) and let it steep at least 10 minutes … or for several hours. The longer it steeps, the more flavor!
- Add your choice of milk. Bring to a simmer once more, turn off the heat. Stir in your choice of sweetener, taste, adding more sweetener to taste. If it tastes bitter, you need more sweetener. Strain into a chai glass or mug.
- Feel the love. xoxo
(By Nikunj Verma)
In India, there are many versions of chai besides masala chai. This adrak (ginger) tea recipe, courtesy of blogger Nikunj Verma, is a great example. “This recipe is from the villages of Western India where I grew up learning it from my mom, aunts and grandmother. I make it vegan with almond milk but sharing with you the original recipe with dairy milk,” said Verma.
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Total Time: 7-10 minutes
Yield: 1 mug
- ½ inch or 2 tsp of fresh ginger, grated
- 1.5 cup water
- 2-3 tsp of black tea leaves (If you want to make a strong flavored tea use 3-4 tsp of black tea leaves, it will also give a darker color to the tea. If you want to make a milder version then 2 teaspoons of black tea leaves is good)
- .5 cup milk
- 1-2 tsp sugar ( I use maple or agave syrup)
- Bring the water to the boiling point and add the grated ginger. Tip: adding some crushed cardamom will take the flavor of this to another level.
- Boil on medium flame for 2-3 mins. Add milk and sugar and bring it to boil again.
- Add the tea leaves or . Simmer until the tea darkens and turns thick for about 5 mins. You will see the tea reduce to 1 3/4 cup.
- Strain and enjoy the tea.