Masala Chai is slightly spicy, slightly creamy and undeniably delicious tea. For anyone who has sipped India’s most popular beverage in their favourite Indian restaurant or coffee shop, it can feel like one of those things you could never replicate at home. Chris Tan of The Straits Times is breaks down this delicious blend of flavours that might just inspire you to try brew your own at home! (All ingredients can be found at Mustafa Centre or Indian grocers.)
Masala chai is a fusion of traditional Indian spice and herb decoctions with tea, which was popularised in India by the British during the colonial era.
Most commonly used in India are CTC (crush-tear-curl) black tea leaves, processed into small pellets, sold loose or bagged. These yield a strong brew which balances spices and milk. Two kinds of loose CTC tea sold ready mixed with spices include one that is infused with a ground masala during processing; the other is mixed with crushed spices after processing. Regional chai may use other teas. In Kashmir, green oolong tea is brewed with spices and slivered pistachios or almonds.
Common foundation spices for masala chai are cassia or cinnamon, green cardamom, clove, black peppercorn, nutmeg and fresh or dried ginger. On the left are the whole spices, and on the right a ground masala blend. Regional variants may call on other spices, for instance, black cardamom, saffron, long pepper or fennel. Also shown here is a modern product, a highly concentrated spice extract that can be added directly to brewed tea. Single-spice tea, such as ginger chai or cardamom chai, is also popular.
Full-cream cow’s milk is usually favoured. To boost richness, some use condensed milk, evaporated milk or malai (thick cream). Buffalo milk is also used in India. Before being added to the tea, the milk is usually heated and may also be mixed with sugar, or “pulled” (poured between glasses) to add froth.
Methods and preferences vary between regions and chai-wallahs (tea vendors). Some infuse the spices separately from the tea, some boil the tea leaves in water or boil them in milk, while others simmer the tea leaves, milk and spices together for hours for a potent result.
A simple recipe
Combine 500ml of water with three tablespoons lightly crushed whole spices in a pot. Cover, bring to a boil over medium heat, then simmer gently for 10 minutes. Add two tablespoons of CTC or whole black tea leaves, cover and steep over very low heat for five to seven minutes. Stir in 400ml of hot full-cream milk plus sugar to taste, strain and serve. If using a ground masala instead of whole spices, skip the first step and add two or three teaspoons of masala to the tea leaves to steep along with them. If using tea leaves already mixed with spices, skip the first step.
Popular in the United States in the early 1990s, it is now a part of the coffee-and-tea store culture. Western-style masala chai, served hot or cold, may incorporate flavours seldom or never used in the Indian original, including star anise, orange zest, fruit, vanilla and honey. It is often made with a dry mix, or with spice-infused liquid tea concentrates and served in larger portions than the small cups used in India.
Three-in-one or two-in-one instant masala tea is now common in India and the West. The Indian mix is darker and has a stronger tea and spice kick than the Western one, which emphasises the sweet and milky aspects.
By Chris Tan, The Straits Times, November 8, 2015