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Making traditional masala chai at home


Masala Chai Latte

You can keep your hot chocolate. I’ll take a delicious masala chai latte on a snowy day!

Before we address the topic at hand, may I take a moment to get something off of my chest?

Today we are discussing a tea called masala chai. The word “masala” refers to a yummy blend of spices, often containing cardamom, ginger, and pepper. The word “chai” means “tea” in Hindi (and Urdu, and Russian, and Bulgarian, and Aramaic, and Swahili, and a variety of other languages). Therefore, when you refer to “chai tea,” you’re talking about “tea tea.” Although most Americans call masala chai just “chai,” they really should be calling it “masala” or “masala tea” if they don’t want to say “masala chai.”

We can thank the coffee industry for confusing our terminology a couple of decades ago, as they coined the phrase “chai latte” to differentiate masala chai (traditionally made with milk) from coffee lattes. Your other word of the week is “latte,” which just means “with milk” and has nothing whatsoever to do with coffee. Tea made with heated and frothed milk is a latte, too!

Thank you. I feel better now. On to the aforementioned topic at hand:

I would never presume to tell you the right way to make a cup of tea. As I’ve mentioned so many times before, there is no single right way to do it. In this post, however, I will talk about one of the traditional ways to make masala chai. In India, where this concoction (or decoction, if you prefer) originated, it is almost always made with milk and sugar.

In a coffee shop, masala chai (which they usually call a chai latte) is almost always made from a pre-sweetened concentrate. It’s quick and easy to make, and it tastes pretty good. But it doesn’t taste like authentic masala chai.

In a tea shop, masala chai is usually brewed fresh from a blend of black tea leaves and masala spices. If they add milk, it is usually poured in after the tea is brewed, unless the tea shop is specifically set up for lattes. You get that fresh-brewed taste, but somehow the spices don’t seem quite right to me (my tea bar does it differently, but that’s a topic for another post).

At home, you can make it the way they do in India.

The masala spices

First of all, the masala spice mix and the tea (chai) are usually purchased and stored separately. Just as many Americans have a family chili or soup or cookie recipe, many Indian families have their own masala recipe handed down through the generations. You can research and experiment to come up with your own, or go to your favorite tea shop and see if they have a blend for sale. Many tea shops (including mine) will sell you the masala spice mix they use in-house without the tea.

If you’re really serious about it, you’ll make each batch up fresh, grinding cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, pepper, ginger, and whatever other spices you use as needed. I know a few folks that do it that way, but not many. I’d recommend starting with a mix that you like.

The tea

In India, the tea leaf of choice is usually a rich black Indian tea like Assam. It’s brewed pretty strong so that you can taste the tea through all of the spice and milk and sweetener. That doesn’t mean you need to use an Assam, but it’s a good place to start.

The milk

Milk serves a definite purpose in masala chai. You can extract flavor from many spices much better in fats or oils than you can in water, as any chef will tell you. Steeping the spice blend in milk will result in a richer, more nuanced flavor than steeping it in water. In India, the milk of choice is typically water buffalo milk, which can be difficult to get hold of here in North America. The usual substitute is whole milk, although 1% or 2% is common with the more health-conscious crowd. Nonfat milk is rather pointless, as the fat is the main reason for using it.

The sweetener

Sugar. Some drink their masala chai unsweetened, but if there is sweetener, it will typically be sugar.

That said, when I’m making masala chai at home, I usually use honey or agave nectar.

The process

You’ll need a pan, a stove, and a strainer to do this. This is my recipe for making enough for you and a few friends. Adjust accordingly if you’re drinking it by yourself.

  1. Heat up a pint (16 oz) of milk in the pan, but do not bring to a boil!
  2. Add 1-1/2 tablespoons of masala spice mix and simmer for five minutes, stirring gently
  3. Bring a pint (16 oz) of water to a boil in a kettle or microwave
  4. Add the water to the pan along with 1-1/2 tablespoons of tea leaves
  5. Stir in 1 teaspoon of sugar or honey
  6. Allow to simmer for another five minutes, stirring occasionally
  7. Pour through strainer to remove leaves and spices, and serve immediately

Put out more sugar or other sweetener for your guests. That single teaspoon is a lot less than a traditionalist would use, but I prefer to let everyone choose their own level of sweetness.

For best results, enjoy with your favorite Indian foods. Masala chai does a wonderful job of cutting the spiciness of curries. You can also use your masala chai tea in your Indian cooking: see my post on Chai Rice.

NOTE: The resulting masala chai will not look like the latte in the picture above. To get that look, I frothed up some milk and placed the foam on the top of the cup, and then added a dash of cinnamon powder.

 

The intimidation factor in tea


In terms of consumer education, the tea industry is where the coffee industry was a couple of decades ago. When I was in college in the 1970s, going into a coffee shop and ordering a vente half-caf no-foam skinny vanilla latte with a shot of white chocolate and a half-pump of peppermint would have gotten you some very strange looks. Starbucks created the terminology and spent years teaching it to their customers — and convincing their customers that it was the standard terminology in all coffee shops. Coffee aficionados have become very comfortable with the terminology and the technology behind their drinks.

Teahouse Kuan Yin

Two Dragons pu-erh as served to me at the Teahouse Kuan Yin in Washington.

Most of my tea customers, on the other hand, are completely overwhelmed by the array of 120 different teas laid out before them. They don’t know the difference between an oolong and a green tea, they’ve never heard of pu-erh, and they think orange pekoe is an orange-flavored tea. They aren’t going to make a complex drink order, largely because the consumer terminology hasn’t standardized and partially because they don’t know what they want. Instead, we have to walk them through it question by question without sounding bothered or talking down to them.

Every day I have conversations like this one:

Customer: I’d like a chai, please.

Me: Masala chai? Okay. We have nine to choose from. Do you want something traditional, or do you want to experiment?

Customer: Experiment?

Me: We have chocolate chai, spice apple chai, rooibos chai, vanilla chai…

Customer: Wow. I think I’ll go traditional.

Me: Here’s our most popular masala chai. It’s a house blend that uses a nice estate grown Assam tea as the base.

Customer: [sniffs] That smells great. I’ll go with that one.

Me: Hot or iced?

Customer: Oh, definitely hot.

Me: Sounds good. Then would you like it prepared as a latte with frothed milk, or just as a cup of straight tea?

Customer: A latte sounds good.

Me: What kind of milk would you like? I have nonfat, 2%, whole, half-and-half, vanilla soy, or coconut.

Customer: Hmmm. What would you recommend?

Me: The vanilla soy is good, but the whole milk is more traditional and makes a pretty nice froth.

Customer: I’ll go with whole milk then.

Me: And would you like it sweetened at all?

Customer: How do most people do it?

Me: In India, you’d probably get it sweetened with sugar. I tend to prefer agave nectar myself, although I don’t sweeten my own masala chais very much.

Customer: Do you have stevia? I’d like a bit of that.

Me: Sure thing. One last question: would you like that for here or to go?

Customer: I’ll drink it here, please.

Me: Okay, then. I’ll have that ready for you in about five minutes.

[This conversation is a lot longer than it would be for a typical non-latte tea, where I just check to see whether they want it hot or iced, here or to go, and they add their own sweetener and milk if they want any.]

Our job as tea experts is to make tea as friendly as possible. If the customer looks exasperated after the first question, I’ll point them at the staff favorites board or just ask if they’d like it made the way most of our customers take it.

I visited a lovely tea shop in Seattle last winter called Vital T-Leaf. Just my kind of place. They set out a gongfu set and we must have sampled a dozen different pu-erh teas. The woman doing the serving had the ceremony down pat, and all of the equipment arrayed before her: tray, kettle, cups, strainers, gaiwan, spoons, and more. We examined the dry leaf and wet leaf and tasted and discussed each tea.

To me, that was the perfect tea shop for the trained tea lover — and I spent plenty of money there in appreciation, but that would not work in Red Lodge, Montana. Most of my customers are intimidated just by the tea list itself. Add the presentation they used in Seattle, and few would even approach the tea bar. Even the way the tea is delivered to the customer matters. To me, the gonfu-style presentation when I ordered at the Teahouse Kuan Yin (see picture above) was perfect. A non-tea person wouldn’t have the slightest idea what to do with that. We prepare the tea and deliver it fully steeped, so our customers don’t have to worry about what kind of equipment we use and what we do with it. After all, they aren’t paying us a few bucks a cup to make them prepare their own tea!

Over the last couple of years, though, I’ve noticed more and more customers coming in and knowing what they want. Many of the regulars are starting to ask detailed questions about the equipment, the process, and the tea styles themselves. They want to know the origins of the funny names (one of the reasons I’m writing the Myths and Legends of Tea book that will hopefully be out by Christmas), the regional differences in style, and the reasons for the differences.

More customers come in knowing what they want, or asking what’s new.

One huge difference remains between coffee aficionados and tea aficionados, though. Most of the coffee people I know neither know nor care what kind of coffee beans are being used — their custom order is all about the additives and preparation methods, so it stays the same every time. Tea people, on the other hand, are more likely to come in and experiment: a longjing dragonwell from China yesterday, a gyokuro from Japan today, and a first-flush Darjeeling from India tomorrow.

We encourage this, of course. The coffee shop down the street sells dozens of different coffee beans, but on any given day they’ll only be serving one or two of them. The differences among plain coffee beans are much more subtle than the differences in tea leaves, so that works for them. If we want our customers coming in to our shop instead of buying Lipton’s in tea bags at the grocery store, that approach won’t work for us. We need to educate our customers on style, terroir, and infusing methods. But we need to do it without being snobbish or intimidating.

It’s a delicate balance, but all of the good tea shops have figured it out. Mayhaps that’s what defines a good tea shop?

Sweetening Tea


I rarely sweeten my tea, with a few notable exceptions (chai just doesn’t taste like chai if I don’t add some honey and milk to it). That doesn’t, however, mean I have a problem with you sweetening your tea. I’ve written before about tea absolutists (a.k.a. “tea Nazis”) and their attitudes. I hope I never become one.

What does kind of bother me, however, is preparing a cup of a new and interesting tea for a guest and having them sweeten it before they taste it. For some people, though, they know how they like their particular favorite tea, and they assume that’s how they’ll like all tea. I think it indicates a general unawareness of the breadth of flavors in different varieties of tea.

A friend of mine came by the tea bar the other day, and I was excited to pull out a new tea for her to try. She was born in Ireland, and lived in the British Isles for most of her early life. I know she likes strong black tea, so I figured she’d really like this Royal Tajiri. I asked her, “would you like to taste it plain before you add your milk?”

She looked at me like I was nuts and said, “plain is with milk.”

Back on the subject of sweetening, times are changing. Used to be, a tea bar or coffee shop could put out a bowl with some of the white packets (sugar), some of the blue packets of aspartame (NutraSweet/Equal), and some of the pink packets of saccharin (Sweet’N’Low), and everyone was happy. Expectations have gone up, though. Now, you really need to have the green packets of stevia (Truvia/PureVia), yellow packets of sucralose (Splenda), and brown packets of natural brown sugar. And perhaps a jar of honey, a jar of agave nectar, and a jar of pure maple syrup.

Some want the most “natural” sweetener they can get. Others have a particular sweetener that they like the taste of. Others are primarily worried about the calories. For those who wish to experiment, I’ve been trying something a little different lately.

Stevia rebaudiana

One variety of the stevia plant (Stevia rebaudiana)

Stevia is a plant native to Paraguay that’s now being grown in a bunch of countries. It has a number of sweet components to its leaves, and the most potent (Rebaudioside A) is the base compound used to produce the powder in the green packets. That powder has a slight but noticeable flavor, which you’ll definitely pick up in a delicate tea (not that any of you would actually sweeten a delicate tea, would you?).

I’m now stocking dried raw stevia leaf in the tea bar. I use it — quite sparingly — in a couple of my house blends to add a touch of sweetness, and I’m starting to get more customers asking me to drop a pinch of stevia leaf in the pot when I’m brewing their tea. The flavor from the raw leaf is different from the flavor you get from the processed powder. Is it any more “natural” than the powder? I really don’t think so. But it feels different to add some leaves to your infusion instead of stirring a powder from a packet into the finished tea.

Going back to my mantra: whatever method of preparation works for you is the right one — for you.

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