Everyone knows how spices are essential to Indian cuisine, be it biryani or gravies. But, spices in chai (tea)? That’s right, almost every Indian household has a herb or a particular kind of spice mix that they love to add to their daily cup of chai. We call it masala chai. What garam masala is to Indian cooking, chai masala is to brewing Indian tea.
For me, masala chai starts with my mother, who I think makes the best chai. As a child, I was captivated by her tea brewing ritual. At home, preparing chai is a 10 minutes ritual where mum first grates fresh ginger in water, adds the spice blend or chai masala, and then gives it a boil, adding tea leaves, milk at room temperature, and sugar. She waits for the final mix to boil two times, one over high heat and the other on low heat. This is also called as double-boil method, which roughly takes two to three minutes.
It took me time to understand my mum’s way of making tea. She made a spice brew first to create a flavourful base and then added milk to it. The spices blended well, and the tea colour, not too milky and just the right shade of crimson brown, how I like it.
Just like seasons, the masala chai blend in our kitchen changed from time to time. For summers, a simple mix of green cardamom and saunf or fennel seeds was made. Fennel seeds are believed to have a cooling effect on the body, whereas green cardamom helps fight acidity. A combination that helped ward off summer headaches and digestive issues. As we moved towards the cooler winter months, warm and earthy flavours of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and black pepper were added to the spice blend.
The chai masala preparation at home is very nostalgic to me. I vividly remember the aroma of dry roasted spices followed by the whirring sound of the blender in which the whole spices were ground to a fine powder. To dampen the noise, my mum would close the kitchen door, but little could she do to stop the aroma of freshly ground spices from filling up the rooms.
If we ever ran out of fresh ginger, mum would add dry ginger powder to the chai. The two yield very different tastes. Dried ginger is spicy and sweet, whereas fresh ginger has a more complex flavour and is slightly pungent. But there is a catch to using fresh ginger while brewing milk-based tea. There is an enzyme in fresh ginger that curdles the milk. To avoid this, first bring water and ginger to a boil and then add milk or boil water and milk together and then add ginger to it.
The composition of chai masala in India differs from region to region. For example, black pepper and cloves are not primarily used in the blend in western parts India. In the state of Gujarat, a typical chai masala or spice blend comprises green cardamom, dry ginger powder, cloves, black peppercorns, cinnamon and nutmeg. Tulsi or basil leaves and even mint leaves or pudina are added to chai along with masala.
In Kashmir, black tea is replaced with green tea and infused with a blend of cardamom, saffron, crushed almonds and cloves. This mountainous region is also known for its famous – Noon chai or pink tea. It gets its pink colour from baking soda, which is added during its preparation.
If you like your tea a certain way, getting the perfect cup can seem like a task. Especially when it’s someone else brewing it for you. A barista at a café could end up preparing it too strong, while a tea vending machine does not even come close to making a perfect brewed cup of tea. But carrying a small box of your favourite chai masala can make the tea drinking ordeal outside your home bearable. Carry it during road trips, on travels and even keep a box of chai masala in your office.
You can also use the spice blend while baking bread, buns or rolls. Since the mix has flavours of cinnamon and nutmeg, they will be an excellent addition to baked breads. You can also use it to season soups, gravy dishes, salads, or even sprinkle on sandwiches and rolls.
Here is a recipe to making chai masala and the perfect cup of double-boil chai at home:
1 tsp black peppercorns
½ tsp cloves
1 stick cinnamon
8 pods cardamom
¼ tsp fennel seeds
¼ tsp dry ginger powder or saunth
You can also use a combination of dry rose petals, saffron, dry tulsi or holy basil leaves and lemongrass if you are fond of floral and citrusy flavours.
I prefer dry roasting the whole spices on very low heat for 10 minutes and then blitzing them in a blender. This method allows natural oils to release quickly and lends more flavour. Alternatively, you can blend the whole spices as is or use a mortar and pestle to crush gently. Ground or crushed green cardamoms will leave husks, which you can add to your tea container or box like many tea companies do.
Store this spice blend in an airtight container. If you make a large batch, store it in a freezer and only take out small batches as required. Once whole spices are ground, they tend to lose their flavour quickly, so it is best to prepare them in batches.
To make double-boil chai:
1.5 cups water
1 cup milk, at room temperature
2 tsp tea
1/2 inch fresh ginger, grated
¼ tsp chai masala
Sugar to taste
1. In a tea pan, add water, grated ginger and chai masala. Brew this spice mix for about 6 to 7 minutes on low heat.
Note: Typically, a 1:1 ratio of water and milk is used, but since we are brewing spices first, we increase the quantity of water. You can adjust the ratio as per your preference.
1. Next, add 2 teaspoon tea leaves and give it a boil. Lower the heat.
2. Then, add milk and sugar and increase the flame to high heat. Lower the heat now.
3. Allow the tea to boil on low flame for the second time. Turn off the flame and cover the tea pan with a lid for 10 seconds.
4. Using a tea strainer, pour the tea into teacups.
Serve hot with milk rusks and enjoy!
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