Monday, October 4, 2010

Kagashi's Kitchen: Masala Chai Mix

My dear friends, many of you have been robbed. For years the media has pushed a sicky-sweet concoction that they call chai- which has more in common with hot chocolate than tea (I'M TALKING TO YOU, OREGON CHAI!). The irony of this being that 'chai' is the Hindi word for tea, so naturally chai should have some in it! Or at the very least taste like it. If you like Oregon and other commercial chais, that's fine (admittedly I'm an ocassional fan of Big Train's powdered mix that tastes like pumpkin pie)- however I ask you to give this more authentic recipe a try. It's deep, soulful, and will warm you to the tips of your fingers.

Masala chai literally means 'spice tea' in Hindi and includes a bevvy of spices which vary in recipe from person to person- similar to American barbeque rubs or minestrone soup. What I have here is the basic combination I was introduced to some years ago in the book "Chai: The Spice Tea of India" by Diana Rosen. It's a lovely read and includes variations on the basic masala mix, recipes for food to accompany chai, and Rosen's experiences traveling through India to discover the cultural heritage of the beverage. I particularly remember her accounts of stopping at train stations through the countryside to be greeted by chai salesmen, who offered the tea in tiny earthen cups, which were smashed upon departure.


The Mix:

- Frying pan or skillet (for optional step)
- A bowl in which to mix everything
- A food processor (or, alternatively, a mortar and pestle if you're old school like me)
- A mason jar or small resealable container to hold leftovers in (more on this later)

On spices: Naturally, fresher, better spices result in a much more flavorful tea.... except I know quite a few of us are not exactly on the ritzier end of things, so just use the freshest spices you can afford. Also realize that unground or whole spices (such as whole nutmegs, cinnamon sticks, peppercorns, cardamom pods) tend to be cheaper and of a better quality than their pre-powdered cousins. My other tip would be to check out an ethnic food store (there's a Pakistani grocery near me) to get some of your more exotic spices, it usually pans out to be cheaper and you might find some other fun stuff in there!

Optional awesome step:
If you are going to grind your spices yourself or purchased them from a place that specializes in the sale of spices, then they probably are not too spent to be roasted! Put your spices in your frying pan over medium to high heat, stirring constantly. The heat will bring out the natural oils in the spices and make the flavor of your chai more robust (the fact that your kitchen smells amazing after this is an added bonus). It should take about 5 minutes. Let the spices cool for about twenty minutes before you grind!

Note: If you are grinding yourself, do this step beforehand, it's a lot easier to fish them all out.

Using either a mortar and pestle or a food processor, grind your various spices into powders (unless you're using pre-ground spices from the grocery store) and measure out the following quantities:

2 tsp (10 g) ground cinnamon
2 tsp (10 g) ground cardamom
1 tsp (5 g) ground nutmeg
1 tsp (5 g) ground ginger
1 tsp (5 g) ground pepper (Black pepper is traditional, but white is also fine)

Extra add-ins (1 tsp/5g unless noted):
-Anise seed or fennel (Miss Kagashi's favorite)
-Cayenne Pepper (to taste)
-Rose leaves or hips
-Sliced almonds (for a more Kashmiri blend)

Now you have your spice mix! Store it in a mason jar or other re-sealable container in a dark place, as sunlight degrades spices. In a pinch this will also work as a deterrent to burglars (since nobody likes pepper in their eyes) or annoying people in your house (shake up the jar and make them smell the contents, the faces they make are hilarious***).

So how do I make this into something I can drink, you crazy lady?

First of all- pick your tea. Loose leaf is best, but this will work with a decent grade of bagged tea. Remember- you're putting a lot of milk into this, you want a strong, dark flavor. I got a lovely Darjeeling blend called Sikkim Temi from my delightful teamongering friend, Andrew, at Teahaus in Ann Arbor.

Teas that play well with this chai mix:
-Assam (traditional)
-Darjeeling (traditional- Kashmiri)
-Rooibos (modern- do not get a flavored rooibos!)
-Nilgiri (traditional- also Kashmiri)

To make this into a dreamy cup of chai, fill your cup 1/2 to 2/3 of the way with water (depending on how milky you'd like it) and steep your tea and a spoonful of your spice mixture for 2-5 minutes- you want it to be strong and a bit bitter. Strain the tea and fill your cup up the rest of the way with warm milk and add sweetener to taste. I like to add a little more spice to my tea, so I add another little spoonful of spice to swim along the top.

Chai for two- a slightly gingerier blend with goldleaf Darjeeling and honey.

Options to consider:
- If you have dietary restrictions against milk, rice or soy milk will also substitute swimmingly.
- The recipe is best made with whole milk, as it gives the chai a thick, rich consistency. In India it is traditionally made with buffalo milk, which is far richer than cow's milk.
- The best sweeteners: Brown sugar, honey, jaggery (a traditional style of Indian sugar)
- Add in some ginger brandy and you have yourself a chai toddy! Perfect for warming up a road-weary soul (or if you've been out raking the leaves or shoveling the walk).

So there you are, go forth and make a fairly traditional cup of masala chai! Make your own witch's brew of your favorite spices! Have a chai party! Put leftovers (if you have any) in little decorative vials and give them to friends for holiday gifts!

If you come up with a mix of your own, feel free to post it below so we can all give it a try.

Friendly links: - Teahaus of Ann Arbor's website. If you're local to Michigan or the Midwest, why not get some amazing tea and support a small business? - Tea Gschwender, the German tea company Teahaus gets its supply from. TG puts their tea through 6 strict quality control testing levels in addition to making over 200 different blends- from fruit tisanes to smokey greens.

* Please don't do this, it's awfully mean-spirited.
** .... unless the person really deserves it, like your roommate who talks at you while you're TRYING TO READ GODAMMIT.


  1. As much as I enjoy some fresh brewed chai, this article has warmed me just from reading it. Well done!

  2. Many of my Indian friends boil their tea in milk. Its a very different flavor as the different heat and fat content change what is leeched from the tea, but its very good. clgbutterfly.

  3. Thanks so much for the recipe! Thing is, if I shook up the spice blend and made friends smell it, they would say "yummmm"

    And the TeaHaus is a wonderful place! I like their Chili Chocolate blend.

  4. Yeah, it's the boiling of the milk/tea/spice that makes it really taste like chai. It's the opposite of normal tea making -- you stew that tea into submission in the milk. Indian recipe sites give a good rundown on how to do it right without destroying your kitchen.

    I admit that boiling milk is messy anyway, but worth it.

  5. Mmmm.

    I like to add a few coriander pods, too.

    I boil the spices and tea together and make a big batch at the beginning of the week and store it in a mason jar in the fridge. Heat with milk and honey in the microwave and take it to work. Waaay better than coffee.

  6. Fantastic post! Thanks for sharing the basic recipe, I am an ardant chai drinker, but I love it the traditional Indian way.

  7. So, if you boil this in milk (as a few folks have mentioned) do you also put the tea leaves directly into the milk, and just strain it all at the end?

  8. A more traditional way to make Chai Massala.

    3" stick of cinnamon*.
    2 to 4" fresh ginger sliced against the grain.
    8 cardamon pods broken open
    4 cloves
    2 to 8 Tbl. tea leaves
    8 cups of water
    2 to 4 cups whole milk
    2 cups sugar

    Optional spices
    2 to 6 peppercorns
    2 or 3 blades of mace
    1 tsp. Saffron

    Put all spices whole (reserve tea leaves)into a large pot and cover with 8 cups cold water.
    Bring to a hard boil until reduced to 4 cups liquid.
    Add Tea boil for 2 more minutes.
    Add Milk. Bring to the boil and continue for 2 to 5 minutes.
    Add sugar. NOTE: If you are using Jaggery or other raw sugar you should add it after the mixture has cooled. If added to boiling milk it will cause the milk to curdle.

    *Look at the end of the cinnamon stick. If it is many thin sheets rolled together it is cinnamon, if one thick piece rolled in on itself it is cinnabar, not nearly as good. You can purchase real cinnamon at ethnic groceries that sell bulk spices including Mexican markets if there are more of them about than Indian markets.