Tea Time: Indian Masala Chai

Tea time: Indian Masala Chai

The elixir of good health, Indian masala chai is bursting with antioxidants and anti-inflammatories and is served with a generous portion of creamy milk and golden sugar. The word chai means “tea” and is so much more than a hot beverage – it is a way of life. It is an integral part of the social fabric of Indian society and is an important part of family tradition, friendship and bonding, hospitality, and even the forging of business relationships. When visiting India or an Indian home or business, remember that tea is offered to all guests as a welcoming gesture and is considered rude to decline. In India, tea is usually brewed with fresh ginger root, milk, and sugar and is served in small, clear glass cups, brass cups, and most often, ceramic or earthenware cups that are earth-friendly.

Black tea is the most popular and is sold by weight and packaged to order in specialty stores called tea depots. Tea depots store a variety of tea leaves, granules, and powder in huge wooden boxes that are kept tightly sealed to preserve flavor and fragrance. According to the tenets of tea grading, whole leaf black teas are called orange pekoe. Crushed teas, used primarily in tea bags, contain broken leaves that are called broken orange pekoe or BOP. The tiny fragments that are left over after the tea has been processed are called fannings and the leftover powder is called dust. Assam, Darjeeling and Nilgiri are some of the most expensive whole leaf teas that are indigenous to the Indian subcontinent and are very light when brewed. CTC, which is short for “crushed, torn, and curled,” is a method of processing tea that yields small granules that are used in various blends. Tea depots also offer special blends like Family Mixture or Amrut (nectar) Mixture that are a blend of orange pekoe, broken orange pekoe, and dust that results in a strong infusion that is much darker than whole leaf brews.

This tea store proprietor that has been in business for 87 years (all photos by Gia Coelho)
Whole leaf Darjeeling tea is the most expensive in the store. It is tucked away in a special box and packaged to order
Samples of tea blends include whole leaves, crushed leaves, granules and dust

 

In India, the ubiquitous, specialty tea shops called amrutulyas are on every street corner, in outdoor markets and at bus and railway stations. Amrut means nectar and amrutulya translates to “considered as good as amrut.” These specialty shops offer many varieties of tea infusions. The most popular however, are masala chai and special chai. Masala chai is black tea brewed with fresh ginger root, milk, sugar, and the eponymous chai masala or “blend of spices.” Chai masala, similar to garam masala, is a formulation of spices that varies based on traditional family recipes. It usually contains dried ginger root, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, and peppercorns ground into a fine powder and is added to brewing tea to give it the rich aroma and delicate pungency that is uniquely Indian. Special chai is tea made exclusively with full fat milk, giving it a luxurious smoothness that should be a rare indulgence. The crown jewel of the amrutulya is the special chai-malai mar ke, which is a cup of special chai, garnished with a dollop of heavy cream!

Indians love dunking crunchy cookies—referred to as biscuits—in their tea. I often get distracted and lose whole chunks of my biscuit in my cup of tea with a resounding “plop.” Tea and biscuits before breakfast, mid-morning and at tea time is the norm in most Indian households, and is often referred to as “chai-biscuit.” Savory snacks like pakoras, potato chips, and samosas are also often served with tea.

This traditional tea shop, called 'Amrutulya,' serves Indian chai in small, clear glass cups
A customer orders special chai at a local Amrutulya

 

Tea, a natural diuretic and appetite suppressant, is consumed several times a day to stave off hunger between meals and provide the body with anti-inflammatory and healing spices that are blended to make chai masala. Fresh ginger root aids digestion, prevents acid reflux, reduces joint pain and even helps to lower blood pressure. In India, tea is sometimes brewed with fresh herbs with restorative and medicinal attributes, like lemongrass, mint and holy basil. My parents had a huge, sweet-scented bush of lemongrass in their garden and often woke up to find whole clumps of the long leaves missing. My mother eventually discovered that our Dalmatian puppy, Pluto, had developed a fondness for the perfumed, piquant leaves and would wrestle whole clumps of them off the bush, frequently eating large fronds in the process!

My mother makes her famous chai masala from scratch and by far, the best cup of masala chai. I remember that while growing up, I’d stare with great longing as the grown-ups drank their tea, sipping from the steaming cups gingerly and then sighing in satisfaction. On some days, my mother would swirl my cup of milk in the tea leaves leftover in the bottom of the pan after the chai had been brewed for the adults. My milk would turn the color of a pale café-au-lait and it would make my day!

Boiling water steeped with Family Mixture tea, grated ginger root, and chai masala
Brewing tea with fresh lemongrass
Masala chai with India's favorite dunking biscuit—Parle G

 

On the next gray, cloudy day, settle down in your favorite chair, with a captivating book and your very own cup of Indian masala chai. Here is my mother’s recipe:

Indian Masala Chai Recipe

Yield: makes two cups

Ingredients:

  • 1½ cups of water
  • ½ cup of milk
  • 2 heaping spoons of loose-leaf black tea
  • 1” piece of fresh ginger root, grated (or ½ tsp of powdered, dried ginger root)
  • ½ tsp of chai masala (or ¼ tsp cardamom powder, ¼ tsp cinnamon powder, and two whole cloves)
  • Sugar to taste (or substitute with honey, raw sugar, or coconut palm sugar)

Note: Loose leaf black teas and tea blends like Brooke Bond, Tetley, Lipton, PG Tips and other generic brands, along with chai masala can be purchased at Indian stores all over the United States. I recommend the Everest brand of chai masala for its authentic flavors.

Where to Find Ingredients
Patel Brothers is an Indian grocery chain that sells many of these  ingredients online or at its many locations throughout the US: www.patelbros.com

Directions:

  1. Pour the water in to a saucepan and place on high heat.
  2. Add ginger and chai masala.
  3. When the water begins to bubble, add tea leaves and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally.
  4. Add milk and bring to a boil once again. The longer you boil it, the stronger the brew.
  5. Take the pan off the stove, cover, and let it sit for 2-3 minutes.
  6. Pour into cups using a stainless steel tea-strainer to keep the leaves from spilling into the cup.
  7. Stir in sugar or honey to taste.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gia Coelho was born in India and now lives outside of Washington, DC. Her passions include culinary adventures, writing, and painting acrylics on canvas. She also enjoys creating colorful, Zentangle art that she sells on her Etsy site: www.etsy.com/shop/giacoelho

Where do you go to experience a good cup of chai? Share your recommendations or stories in the comment section below.

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