Masala Chai is one of my favorite beverages to drink in the winter.
It’s like a hug from my imaginary Indian grandmother.
It’s why pumpkin pie flavor is so popular. We don’t genuinely care about pumpkin. We love the spices, sugar, and cream that become masala chai.
At times I can see why the Europeans in the 15th century would embark on a months-long water journey.
Quick lesson: Masala = Spice, Chai = Tea, but going forward, I’ll use the word chai to refer to the aromatic sweet drink that Americans consume.
Don’t be intimidated by chai.
Chai seems like a mysterious blend of exotic ingredients, but nowadays, you can get most of the spices at any large grocery store. And it is simple to make at home.
I understand any hesitation because even as a chef, I didn’t know how to make it until I came across this chai gift idea. The link is a do-it-yourself gift. You simply assemble all of the spices and loose-leaf tea. Put it in jars, and voila, Christmas gift.
But this simple gift idea transformed chai making in my own kitchen.
I first made it following their directions. And, once I realized that I could make my own, I was on a chai-making quest.
I have no Indian heritage. My chai knowledge only comes from what I have consumed in coffee shops, grocery stores, and the internet.
But I love to eat and drink and now make something close to what Indians might actually consider chai.
Make Your Own Chai
Most American supermarket chai options either are selling you a tea bag or a premade concoction of processed sugary flavors. Trying to make a cup of chai by steeping a tea bag doesn’t allow enough time for the flavor to come out of the spices. And the premade drinks and tea concentrates are filled with added sugar.
When you make chai at home, you get to enjoy the simmering spices on the stovetop. You can adjust the tea, sugar, and milk to your taste and create your own drink that you can cozy up with on a cold winter day.
The spices for chai can include any of the following: pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, fennel, star anise, ginger, allspice, and bay leaves. Every Indian family has its own recipe, and so you can make your own too.
Most of the spices are readily available at the store or on the internet. You want to buy whole spices or seeds. This way, they last longer and don’t lose their aroma. When spices are ground, the processing causes them to go bad quickly.
To save money, avoid the tiny bottles at the supermarket. The best place to go to is an Indian grocery store, and then the second best is another ethnic market. Latin markets will have cloves, cinnamon, and coriander. Asian markets will have star anise, ginger, and bay leaves.
The Tea Leaves
Darjeeling or Assam are basic Indian black teas, but you can make chai with any black, green, or white tea or no tea leaves at all. The tea leaves were added to chai in its recent history.
Definitely don’t use expensive tea because you are masking its flavor with spices. I usually use Lipton because I have it on hand.
But, as with most things, you won’t improve a bad product, to a certain point. The better the tea, the better the finished product.
The spices on their own are bitter, and some sweetener is needed to balance the flavor. When you make it yourself, you get to choose what and how much to use. Honey and sugar of any kind are typical.
My Chai Method
I have found that it is easier to make about a quart of chai at one time. Going through the process for one cup is an ordeal that makes it a selling point for your favorite coffee or tea shop. I like to save the sweetened tea in the fridge and then reheat it and add milk when I am ready to drink. In the summer, you can just add cold milk and drink.
I like to toast the spices at the time I make the chai, but I don’t bother to grind them.
You only want to steep the tea for 2–10 minutes. The range of times allows you to control the flavor and caffeine level.
Masala Chai Recipe
- ¼ cup black peppercorns
- ¼ cup cloves
- ¼ cup coriander seeds
- ¼ cup fennel seeds
- ½ cup cardamom pods cut in half
- 8–10 star anise pods
- 4–5 cinnamon sticks, broken up
- 1-inch chunk of ginger, sliced
- 4 black tea bags or an equivalent amount of loose tea
- 1 quart of water
- 3–4 tablespoons honey or sugar
- Milk or Non-Dairy Milk Substitute
Combine the dry spices in a jar and mix everything up. Add about a quarter cup of mixed spices to a dry pan, making sure to get one star anise and a few pieces of cinnamon sticks, and turn on the heat. Stir frequently for 1 minute until you smell the aroma, and then immediately add 1 quart of water. Add the ginger. Bring the spices to a boil, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 30 minutes. Bring the spices back to a boil, turn off the heat, and add the tea. Let the tea steep to your desired time. When you are ready, strain the entire mixture, discard the spices, and save the liquid. Add honey or sugar. Serve it with your favorite dairy or non-dairy beverage for a creamy texture. Save any remaining tea and refrigerate. Drink within 3–4 days.
Try Making Your Own Chai
This simple recipe takes a little time, but easy to put together. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Sit back and enjoy the aroma in your kitchen while you steep the spices on a cold winter day.
By making your own recipe, you can adjust the spices to your tastes and enjoy the satisfaction of doing it yourself.
Julie Moreno is a chef and writer, now trying to get more people to cook their own food and understand where it comes from. She lives in the middle of California, where she’s learning to landscape with fruits and vegetables. Find her on her blog Food Demystified, Twitter @juliehouse, and Facebook @fooddemystified