Chai masala powder is an Indian tea spice mix made with a combination of warm spices like black peppercorn, cardamom, cinnamon, and fennel. This spice mix can be used to make masala chai or chai spiced desserts.
History of adding spices to chai
Steeping herbs and spices has long been a part of Indian Ayurvedic rituals with drinks like kashayam or kadha dating back over 3000 years. It was only in the 1920s when tea was introduced to the Indian population during British colonization that chai wallas, or tea vendors, started adding the similar spices found in the ancient drinks to black tea so that the tea fit the taste of the local Indian people.
Some say that the act of adding spices was an act of protest as adding the spices reduced the amount of tea leaves needed in a cup of chai and reduced profits that the British could make. Although this probably didn’t curb tea consumption, it was a way that the Indian population was able to make this drink their own. You can read more about the complicated history of chai in this blog post here. For now, we will delve into making chai masala, a spice blend that is irrevocably linked with making masala chai.
Crafting your perfect chai spice blend
There are a myriad of spices in masala chai that make it a complex and delicious cup of tea. Everyone has their own FAVORITE chai masala or spice blend. After many trials and errors, I also have crafted my homemade chai masala recipe below, which I think is pretty awesome. You can use my chai spice blend as a great starting off point, but I want you to be able to personalize it and change the recipe to your liking.
In order to craft a chai masala to your liking, you need to understand what each spice brings to the table. The spice notes are listed below both in Tamil and in English:
- Elakkai (Cardamom) - Powerful Sweet, nutty flavor
- Inji (Ginger) - Peppery, Fresh, Calming
- Lavangam (Clove) - Bitter, Warm (Bitterness helps balance sweetness)
- Sombu (Fennel) - Subtle licorice taste, fresh, calming for the stomach
- Milaka (Black peppercorn) - Peppery, spicy
For example, if you want a more floral and sweet masala chai, increase the amount of cardamom. If you want a masala chai to help calm your throat when you have a cold, add more ginger. If you are sensitive to spice, decrease the amount of black peppercorn. The point is that spice blends can be customized in so many different ways. So make your chai masala mix your own!
Toasting your spices is important
When making a spice blend, it is very important to toast your spices. This step is important to coax out the essential oils in the spices, which enhances the taste of the spices and makes it more pronounced in the final spice blend.
The rule of thumb is to add the more heartier spices like cinnamon and cardamom into the skillet to toast first followed by the more delicate spices like fennel seeds. It is equally important to frequently toss the spices to prevent the spices from burning.
When toasting your spices, always rely on your senses to determine when the spices should be removed from the pan. You know the spices are ready to be removed from heat when you start smelling the warm scents. If you look carefully at spices like black peppercorn or cloves, you will notice a slight sheen on these spices from the oils that are released during the toasting process.
Tips for making a great masala powder
- Choose an array of complimentary spices. Choosing a range of spices that are sweet, bitter, spicy, and warm help create a spice blend that is complex in flavor.
- Choose good quality spices. If you start with bad quality or old spices then you will also have a bad quality chai masala. Buy good quality and reputably-sourced spices for a great chai masala.
- Toast your spices. Toasting your spices releases the natural oils, leading to a more pronounced taste than if you were to skip this step.
- Allow your spices to cool before grinding. This is an important step to ensure longevity of your spice mix. If you blend your spices while warm, it will create condensation that will cause the spices to clump and reduce their longevity.
- Add a pinch of kosher salt to your spice blend. Adding a pinch of kosher salt helps break down big spices like cinnamon sticks and cardamom into a fine powder. This trick also helps bring out the natural taste of these spices in your cup of chai.
- Keep ground chai masala away from natural elements. It is important to store the spice in an airtight container away from the sun to prevent degradation of the spices.
How long does chai masala stay fresh?
Chai masala is best when it is first ground. Whole spices lose their freshness the longer they sit on shelves and spices when ground lose their freshness even faster.
The first step to having a fresh chai masala starts with sourcing fresh spices that have been harvested recently. You can invest in good quality spices that are ethically sourced from a company like Diaspora Co.
You can help homemade chai masala stay fresher by ensuring the spices are cool before grinding them into powder. This prevents moisture or condensation from collecting when grinding the spices which can cause the masala to clump and degrade.
In addition, it is best to keep the chai masala in an airtight container away from the sun. If you properly make and store you chai masala it can stay fresh for up to 3 months.
Frequently Asked Questions
Use a spice grinder for a chai masala that is a fine powder. Break down large cinnamon sticks to help the spice grinder break the pieces. Lastly, add a pinch of kosher salt into the spice grinder which helps breaks down the spices down.
You can use a mortar and pestle if you don't have a spice grinder. Alternatively, you can place the spices in a plastic bag and lightly smash and crush the spices. This method won't lead you to a fine powder that is as potent but will yield a chai spice blend that is delicate.
It is important to cool spices to prevent condensation while grinding spices which can cause spices to clump and reduce the shelf life of spices.
For 3 cups of chai, use 1.5 teaspoons of chai. See the recipe for masala chai for more details.