Even if you're not a masala chai drinker, you may remember the North American craze of the late '90s and early Aughts. Masala chai, the soothing South Asian preparation of black tea, spices, sugar, and milk, made its creamy way across oceans into even the most suburban cups. In what seemed like overnight, "chai" (which, on its own, actually just means "tea") became a delicious flavor available in everything from Caribou Coffee lattes to truckstop milkshakes. In some municipalities, chai became even more popular than Pizza Hut.
But the idea of warm, spiced, milky drinks is hardly a radical new invention. Centuries of spicers have infused warm liquids, though the corruption of lush, warm spiced milk by tannic black tea was more likely to have been commercially, rather than ayurvedically, motivated. Upon the successful introduction of Assam teas to India by the British East India Company in the mid 1800s, commercial interests (and British-appointed national lobbying boards) aggressively pushed the idea of domestic tea consumption in India everywhere from railroad siding to factory lunchroom. After such a campaign, the eventual popularity of black Indian tea prepared "spiced", i.e. masala chai, was almost inevitable.
Though Assam tea is the go-to black tea for a base brew to season, sweeten, and hold up to milk, other black or even green teas can provide a good foundation for masala chai. In India, advances in production which led to quick-extracting, intensely flavored granular tea particles (crush, tear, curl or CTC tea) gained the highly robust Assam tea a strong foothold as masala chai's base.
The spices that make up traditional masala chai usually include some combination of five basic spices: cardamom, ginger, clove, black pepper and cinnamon. Other spices and flavorings may include anise, fennel, nutmeg, vanilla, coriander, allspice, bay leaves—you get the idea. Some people really empty out the whole spice rack here. It's also acceptable to include chocolate, though that probably moves the drink to another level beyond the scope of this tea writer.
While North American cafes tend to rely on a pre-prepared concentrate of masala chai tea and spices, which they can later heat and combine with steamed milk, Indian chai wallahs will prepare the simmering mixture streetside. (They may not, however, be fully equipped to throw a shot of espresso in it to make you a somewhat disturbing "dirty chai".)
Preparation methods can be as varied as the spices you include, but there are several basic principles to work with as you begin to create the perfect masala chai. First, you'll do better to use freshly ground spices, which will release a great deal more depth and aroma into your chai than will something you've held onto in a tin for the course of several apartment moves. Second, assuming you're going to use milk, a fattier, richer milk will offer much more flavor than lowfat varieties, which will leave your chai thinner and with less of the creamy texture integral to the drink. Third, look for a quality black tea with enough flavor and backbone to really let the tea component of the drink shine through. These essentials will get you just that much closer to a beguiling cup of masala chai.
Make Your Own Masala Chai
Even more than in normal tea preparation, you can adjust chai to your own personal taste and preference. The ratio of milk to water (or indeed, choice to use cow's milk at all) is perhaps the biggest variable, followed by choice and amount of sweetener. Start with an easy recipe like this, and then adjust to emphasize the qualities you like best in your masala chai.
The overall effect should be a smooth, creamy drink that combines the floral, rich malty liquor of black tea melded with milk and warming spices, which often seem to lead off with cardamom and unfurl from there. Consume at any and every time of day—and feel free to enjoy alongside samosas and other fried Indian snacks. Life's not so bad after all, right?
About the author: Liz Clayton drinks, photographs, and writes about coffee and tea all over the world, though she pretends to live in Brooklyn, New York. She is bad at keeping up her coffee-world blog at twitchy.org