Masala Chai is an Indian black tea that is brewed with warming spices for a creamy and delicious drink.
Understand Chai's History
Before we dive into making chai, it is important to address the elephant in the room. It is how we refer to this beloved drink. Chai is a Hindi word which means tea. When coffee shops in the United States refer to "Chai Tea" or "Chai Tea Latte" they are saying "tea tea", which is just redundant. So just say chai!
Now with that cleared up, we can talk about how chai is a popular drink that is now a part of mainstream Indian and South Asian culture, but that popularity has not always been the case.
Chai consumption became a part of Indian culture around the 1920s. The British, who colonized India, grew tea in regions in Assam and Darjeeling and eventually marketed tea to the Indian people for profits. You can learn more about chai's origin in this blog where I dive into chai's fraught history that is rooted in colonialism and capitalism.
Best tea to use for chai
The best tea to use for chai is loose leaf CTC black tea. CTC, which stands for "crush, tear, curl", is a machine-processed tea. This tea is defined by its small granule texture and strong taste. Its counter part is orthodox tea which comes in long strands which is known for subtle and nuanced flavor.
The fine granules of CTC tea produce a strong cup that can stand up to the spices in chai whereas the orthodox tea makes chai that ends up tasting more like milk with spices. I recommend brands like Red Label or Diaspora Co's CTC black tea to make this recipe.
You can learn more about CTC black tea in this article which goes in depth about sourcing the tea, how its different from other black teas, and why it makes for the best chai.
Whole Spices vs. Ground Spices
There are pros and cons to whole spices vs. ground spices when making chai...
- Whole spices stay fresher longer whereas ground spices start loosing their potency as soon as you grind them.
- Whole spices give a delicate and subtle taste. If you want a stronger flavor with whole spices, you need a large quantity of spices. With ground spices, a little bit goes a long way to create a bold flavor.
- Spice blends for spice forward chais and whole spices for delicate chais. I prefer using my homemade chai masala for masala chai and use whole spices for more delicate chais that feature one spice like rose chai or ginger chai. I also freshly grind my homemade chai masala every 2-3 weeks so the potency lost in that time is negligible compared to the bold taste that the spice blend provides.
Spices that are in masala chai
There are myriad 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 with the right balance of spices like cardamom, fennel, cinnamon, and black peppercorn, which I think is pretty awesome!
Having a great chai masala sets a great masala chai apart from a good one. I prefer making a homemade spice blend as some spice blends have sat on shelves for a long time which results in a mixture that has lost its potency. There are some brands of chai masala like Diaspora Co and Spice Walla that make great quality spice blends with high quality spices if you are looking to purchase your chai spice mix.
What to serve chai with
Chai is a sweet and spicy drink that pairs well with so many snacks. I personally love to have masala chai with savory snacks like cornflake mixture or murukku. Alternatively, sweet flavors like chocolate or ginger pair well with the chai as well!
If you are feeling really fancy, I love throwing an Indian Chai Party or an Indian-inspired tea party with Indian-inspired dishes which you can find the details for here.
Tips for making a delicious chai
- Allow tea leaves and spices to steep and boil in water for 2-3 minutes before adding milk. This is a crucial step to getting a strong cup of chai and hydrating the spices. When you add milk to the the chai, it drastically slows down the steeping process. So don't skip the initial steep of tea or else you will get a weak chai that tastes mostly like milk.
- Use loose leaf CTC black tea for chai. Crush, Tear, Curl or CTC tea yields a strong cup of chai that can withstand the spices in chai. Choose this type of tea over orthodox tea. Check out this blog post that goes in depth about CTC tea, how to source it, and substitutions for this tea.
- Choose ground masalas for a spicier chai and whole spices for a delicate chai. A little bit of ground masala makes for a spicy chai with a bold flavor. Opt for whole spices when making more delicate chais like ginger chai, cardamom chai, or rose chai.
- Turn the heat down when adding milk to the tea. If you have cold milk this step is just insurance that you won't shock and curdle the milk. The next reason for this step is that you want the milk to gradually come to a boil. As the milk slowly boils, the water evaporates, creating a creamy cup of chai.
- Allow the milk to boil, froth, and rise. Allowing the milk to froth and rise gives it a creamy mouthfeel that is reminiscent of a thick latte! I always make chai in a large pot to allow space for the chai to rise as well.
- Sweeten the milk to your liking. Add sugar to your liking. If you are sensitive to sugar, omit sugar while making tea and add it in the end. If you are making iced chai, add sugar while the chai is still warm so it melts before its cold. Other unprocessed sugar alternatives that taste great in chai are jaggery and honey!
Frequently Asked Questions
Loose Leaf CTC black tea or crush, tear, curl black tea is best for chai as it provides a strong tea flavor that can stand up to the spices in chai.
Chai inherently is a creamy drink that is brewed with milk and spices. If you avoid milk because you are lactose intolerant, you can substitute lactose-free milk. Other alternative milks that are great in chai are oat milk and almond milk!
You can swap out CTC black tea, which is traditionally used in chai, for rooibos, which is an caffeine free tea, to make a chai without caffeine. You can checkout this in depth blog post that dives deep on making decaf chai along with a detailed decaf masala chai recipe.
Follow the recipe below for chai but slightly reduce the amount of water to account for the ice that will dilute the chai later. Chai can be made up to a week in advance, filtered, and stored in the fridge until ready to be consumed. You can checkout this detailed article and recipe for iced masala chai here.
You can simply drink chai without sugar for a sugar-free chai. Alternatively, you can use unrefined sugar like jaggery or honey to sweeten chai.
Chai is served for breakfast as well as around tea time which is anywhere between 3:30pm to 5pm. But really, chai can be had at anytime of day. If you are sensitive to caffeine either avoid chai late at night or substitute black tea with rooibos for a uncaffeinated option.