Chai is just another way to say tea, but in the West it’s come to mean something sticky and fragrant that can leave one feeling a bit ill in the gills. In India, chai generally means a tiny cup of black tea with milk and lots of sugar. The chai you find at franchise coffee outlets resembles the tea sold at the stalls of Kerala in its almost unbearable cloying sweetness that leaves the teeth tacking together. But Indians consume such moderate amounts that it’s more like taking a carbohydrate shot than enjoying a cup of tea; the volume of a tall Starbucks chai latte would be enough to satisfy about six traditional Indian chai-wallah customers. One can try to order a chai “less chini,” meaning without that powdery white stuff the Chinese invented by processing common cane jaggery, but such a request will usually inspire a look of incredulity from the chai-wallah. You crazy person, the sugar is the best part!
However, there is another kind of chai that is most delicious and palatable even when served in larger cups. It’s the chai masala you’ll find served in homes and the rare chai stand that specializes in a thoughtful brew. Everyone seems to have their own recipe, so though I’ll provide a simple chai masala here, it’s just a basis upon which to develop your own particular blend.
A good peeler. Peeling the ginger is the most time-consuming and off-putting aspect of chai manufacture, if you ask me. Make it easy on yourself.
Preferably a dedicated saucepot, or at least one that hasn’t been used to cook savory foods like garlic or onion. Nothing is worse than chai with a hint of onion essence.
A strainer that fits your vessel. How many precious puddles of the perfect chai have I splashed on kitchen counters? Such a waste! And it’s almost always due to incompatible strainer/cup relationships.
A dedicated French press (optional) or milk fluffer. To be explained.
Nice cups. “Nice” being a word that you can define in your own special way.
3 tablespoons fresh ginger. Peeled and chopped up into little matchsticks; if you are feeling lazy you can also just peel it, cut it into a few chunks, and crush so the juice is released. In northern India they mash it up with a mortar and pestle. As you please. I prefer the matchsticks. Thin-skinned ginger tends to have more juice but less flavor. I haven’t yet found a way to effectively store fresh ginger after it’s been peeled and cut, so just cut what you need. Whatever you do, avoid powdered ginger.
4 cardamom seeds. You can experiment with the cardamom; there are many different types. The greener the pods, the more pungent they are. I like to put cardamom seeds in coffee as well.
2 cloves. Just two or three is enough, though it will depend on their freshness. That old bottle of generic clove you bought four years ago? Probably won’t be so tasty. Use more.
1 cinnamon stick. Again, it depends on freshness and preference, but a piece the size of one of those little free pencils you get when you’re taking a test is probably enough.
1–2 peppercorns (optional). Some people like to put in one or two whole black peppercorns for an extra bite.
2 cups milk. As fatty as you please. I prefer whole milk. You can also use soy, but it will make a grittier chai.
2 cups water. Or more as needed; it depends on how thick you want it.
Tea. Your best bet for perfect chai is some inexpensive ground black Assam tea. Your city or town may have an Indian neighborhood where you can find the standard brands used in India: Red Rose or Taj Mahal. If you’ve got a nice Darjeeling tea, don’t waste it. Or just put a few leaves in at the very end to add some extra flavor. If you insist on using your good tea you will have to adjust the recipe, because if it is cooked for more than a minute or two it will become very bitter.
Sweetener. Honey is my favorite. Different types of honey have very distinct flavors. Alfalfa, buckwheat, clover— it really makes a difference. In the Muslim part of Delhi I’ve had a delicious chai that was sweetened with molasses. White sugar would be my last resort. Or stevia if that’s your thing.
Boil the ginger and spices for a few minutes until you get the sense that the water is infused with the taste. Add the black tea and boil for another few minutes over medium heat until dark. If you’re short on time, you can just boil everything together at once. After giving it a good cook, add the milk and bring to a boil once more; then lower the heat, let it reach a near-boil again, then turn off. In South India, the chaiwallahs heat the milk separately and then pour from pot to pot, mixing with the tea just before serving. That way they can stew up a big pot of just tea and use it all day long while the flies dance and play upon its surface.
Now I have the ultimate secret tip to share with you: It’s all about the froth. I really think you’ll like this—it was passed on to me by a Hungarian friend who made the best homespun cappuccino I’ve ever tasted. Once you strain out the ginger, tea, and spices, pour half the tea into a clean French press and then churn the tea by quickly pumping the press. It’s also possible to find a milk fluffer (also known as a milk frother— most easily found online), which is even better because you can heat the milk in it right on the stove and then fluff it in the same container.
Finally, when it’s time to serve, try to serve it up nicely. After many travels and drinking thousands of cups of tea, attending tea ceremonies in Japan and Taiwan, trying chais of every stripe, I have developed an appreciation for presentation. Particularly, choice of cups. Sometimes formal works, or a china cup with a lid is nice; I usually prefer a rustic mug without a handle. Just not a cracked mug with Garfield or some company slogan on the side. I promise your chai will taste better. Or, best of all, pour it into a big shiny red thermos, go for a drive, pull over by the side of a stream and have tea with biscuits while you stretch your legs. With all those conditions fulfilled, you are sure to enjoy.
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