Authentic Homemade Indian Chai
It’s been so chilly in the Pacific Northwest lately (by my pansy, poor-excuse-for-a-Canadian standards). My hands are dry, my face is chapped, and I’ve been wearing my toque indoors all day. Brr. I think it’s because it’s been so damp. It’s a different cold from the (actual) cold I grew up with in the Northeast.
We’ve been keeping our fireplace (and accompanying garland of christmas lights!) lit all day, and drinking more tea than is probably advisable. And when I say tea, I mean reeeeally good tea. Indian style. Chai, you might call it.
The weak tea that North Americans typically drink has the colour of dirty dishwater, almost no flavour, no need for sugar (because it is so pale and spineless). It is nothing close to the version drunk by millions of Indians. Indian tea is rich and milky, deeply coloured, steaming hot, and boldly flavourful with a definite need for sugar to offset the toasty bitterness.
The word chai just means tea. If you ask for chai tea in India, you’re asking for tea tea and your dorky adorableness will get laughed at a little bit. Masala chai is what you’re probably aiming for, which is the spiced version. And chai is pretty much the Indian national beverage. Despite what starbucks would have you believe, it does not start with a syrup and it’s not super heavily spiced. If you visit India, you’ll see chai-wallas on every corner, calling out “chai! chai! chai!” and pouring steaming tea from a height (called “pulling” the chai), allowing it to cool a bit as it streams into little metal cups.
Whenever my husband’s parents visit, his mom makes me a steaming cup of her most delicious chai every morning. I start looking forward to it before I even go to bed at night. It is the tastiest tea you have ever tasted and I could drink a hundred cups a day. Granted, she really likes my tea, too, so I have a theory that it just tastes better when someone else makes it for you, with love.
If you love the flavour of North American coffee-shop chai, you can by tea masala at any indian grocer, which is a ground blend of sweet spices, but I find those mixes usually taste dusty and lackluster and prefer to infuse with fresh. Ginger root, cardamom, cinnamon and/or fennel are wonderful. You can use any or all of them to make your own flavour. I typically just toss in a few cardamom pods and fennel seeds. Warming and delicious.
What I love so much about it is that the tea is actually brewed in milk and water in a saucepan on the stove – so it stays piping hot until ready to be drunk, rather than cooling down as it steeps in a teapot. For authenticity, it should be generously sweetened. I’ve seen recipes call for 1 tbsp sugar per cup. I don’t measure, but it should have the sweetness of hot cocoa. Just avert your eyes and keep on spooning. (It won’t have more sugar than a Starbucks anyway, you’ll just be aware instead of ignorant.)
A “recipe” is not really necessary, it’s the method that matters. Roughly one part milk to two parts water, lots of tea leaves or bags, strong infusion, plenty of sugar, and optional addition of sweet spices. Scale the measurements below to the number of servings you need. Happy cozy-weather sipping!
(And thanks, Amma, for all the tea and love!)
- 8 oz water
- 4 oz whole milk
- granulated sugar to taste (about 2 heaped teaspoons per serving, traditionally)
- 1 heaping tablespoon of black tea empty out tea bags to make a tablespoon if you don't buy loose leaves
Add any (or all) of the following:
- 4 cardamom pods smashed with side of a knife
- small piece of cinnamon stick
- 1/4 " coin of fresh ginger
- pinch of fennel seeds about 10 seeds
- Bring water and milk to a simmer with desired spices in a medium saucepan. Reduce heat to lowest setting and add tea. Steep until tea takes on a deep, pinky-tan colour, about 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Strain into a cup and stir in sugar to taste.