Masala chai is an Indian tea drink made from brewing a combination of different spices with black tea or milk. It is also known as “chai”, or “chai tea”.
The word chai means “tea”, originating from the Persian chay, which in turn derives from the Chinese cha. Masala means “spice”; together, the name masala chai literally means “spice tea”.
When making chai with black tea, a stronger tea such as Assam is preferred, otherwise the spices will overpower the flavour of the tea. There is a specific type called Mamri, which is the favoured tea when brewing chai. It is largely inexpensive and should be available at local Indian grocery stores. Caffeine-free rooibos tea has also been used instead of black tea.
Roobois Masala Chai - iris, Flickr
Chai can also be made using green tea, as the ones in the region of Kashmir. This version uses what is called “gunpowder tea”, or zhu cha in Chinese. The name comes from the way the leaves have been rolled into pellets and resembles black powder, and dates back to the Tang Dynasty in 618-907 AD.
Milk-based chai is made by adding the spices to a mixture of milk and water, and then near-or-full boiling. Buffalo milk is used traditionally, but whole cow milk is also used, especially in Western countries. Condensed milk can also act as both milk and sweetener.
But the most important part of chai tea is the spices.
Masala chai spices - kris krüg, Flickr
Freshly ground spices produce the best masala chai, and this is what is used in India. The recipe for these spices will vary from household to household, passed down from one generation to the next, and each with their own distinctive flavours. The spice mixture itself, regardless of recipe, is called karha, consists of the following base ingredients:
Cinnamon — freshly ground sticks of cinnamon provides a lot of the flavour to the spice
Cardamom — green cardamom pods, lightly crushed and roasted before boiling, adds balance to the spice mixture
Cloves — the spiciness of the cloves adds depth; whole cloves work best, although powdered cloves can also be used
Ginger — adds a little zing to the spices, being both sweet and hot; crystallised or powdered ginger can also be used
Peppercorns — black peppercorns are typical, but white or green peppercorns can also be used for a milder flavour; whole is preferred for better flavour retention during storage, but cracked peppercorns work as well
Other variations of chai tea build upon this base recipe, adding other flavours such as nutmeg, mace, chilli, rose, and coriander. In Kashmir, where chai is made with green tea, a much subtler blend of flavours is used, adding almonds, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and saffron.
Spice market - Maureen Didde, Flickr
These ingredients can also be selected for their medicinal properties, such as turmeric to reduce fevers. Other properties include aiding digestion and increasing metabolism.
The recipe for each family is traditionally based on the health and constitutions of its members, which is a large reason why they are so different. See here for a list of spices and ingredients used in different regions.
Western versions of masala chai has changed the very form and nature of traditional chai. There are liquid “chai concentrates”, popular because it does not require brewing; powdered, instant chai; both of which can be easily replicated. These are typically mixed with water, milk, or a mixture of both, and are usually pre-sweetened.
There are also chai tea bags, containing ground chai spices to steep in hot water. Chai spices can be sold in bottles, although those are typically powdered spices rather than ground, with added sugar.
Chai Concentrate - Breville USA, Flickr
In Western coffeehouses, “chai lattes” are made with steamed milk poured over chai concentrates or powders. The term latte is Italian for milk, and despite being commonly used as an abbreviation for “caffe latte”, chai lattes do not contain any coffee.
Non-traditional ingredients such as chocolate, vanilla, and espresso are also added to chai tea in Western countries. The flavours of these ingredients tend to mask the flavours of the masala spices, giving them a subtler, less pronounced note. The names for these beverages vary depending on the establishment, such as “dirty chai”, or “java chai” for espresso and chai; there are no standardised names for them.