This is my go-to drink when I’m hungover, got a cold or just feeling a bit run down. The sweetness and the spice are the perfect combination to help perk me up. Back when we were in London we usually only drank it at the weekend as making it at work was never possible. Here in Mumbai, as I am fortunate to be working part-time, I drink it unsweetened the days that I am home, and have the sweet version as an occasional treat from a roadside chai wallah – it always tastes better when someone else is making it!
Chai wallahs – the tea vendors – can be found on pretty much every street corner in each village, town and city in India serving their glasses of goodness in cortado sized portions. One of the best I’ve had was on a recent trip to Rajasthan. We stopped by a tiny stall manned by a lovely family on the deserted outskirts of Bundi where they made chai over an open wood fire which gave it an unusual smoky flavour.
Masala chai is easier to make than you think and tastes infinitely better than a shop bought chai latte. The most laborious part is making the masala mix. This however will only take 10 minutes of your time the first time you make chai, and will last you for many subsequent cups. The rest is easy.
Chai masala varies from family to family, and contains a multitude of spices such as dried ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, peppercorns and star anise. The recipe I’ve given is a close approximation to my mum’s family one – she’d kill me if I let the actual one out in the open! One difference is the omission of a spice called ganthoda (a.k.a. long pepper) purely because getting hold of it outside of South Asia would be a task and a half. Which is a shame as it gives a good kick to the finished chai!
Feel free to alter the quantities of the spices to your palate. Assam tea is best as it is strong, but English Breakfast works pretty well too. I prefer my chai to be made with semi-skimmed milk, but use whichever type you fancy. And of course, you can alter the sweetness to whatever you wish – Indians like it saccharine!
Homemade Masala Chai
For the chai masala (enough for 40 or so servings):
1 heaped tsp black peppercorns
1 heaped tsp white peppercorns
½ cinnamon stick (approx. ½ tsp ground cinnamon)
20 green cardamom pods (seeds only)
½ tsp dry ground ginger
¼ nutmeg, grated
⅛ tsp fennel seeds
To make 2 small cups of chai:
2 tsp loose leaves/teabags of Assam or English Breakfast tea
⅛-¼ tsp chai masala, depending how spicy you like it
80 ml semi-skimmed milk
160 ml water
1½ tsp jaggery or sugar
½ inch piece of fresh ginger peeled, cut into small pieces and lightly crushed (optional)
First make the masala – put all the spices except for the ground ginger in a pestle and mortar, or a coffee bean or spice grinder if you’re lucky enough to have one, and grind to a fine powder. Stir in the ground ginger, and make sure all the spices have been evenly mixed in together. Stored in an airtight container, though the pungency might reduce, it can last for years!
Put all the ingredients for the chai in a small saucepan and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat immediately (otherwise it will boil over) and simmer for a couple of minutes. Strain into a teapot or two small glasses/cups and you’re done!