I must confess to a personal addiction to masala chai, which for me is the essence of the Himalayas in a cup. Each sip of spicy warmth reminds me of the magic of remote mountain villages and tiny tea stalls found in the most unlikely places, including perched on a 2500m high mountain ridge. Hot, nourishing tea with a stellar view is almost as big a payoff as reaching the pilgrimage destination itself!
Just as the world is divided between cat lovers and dog lovers, India itself is divided between tea drinkers and coffee drinkers, roughly North v South. Although the modern global coffee shop trend is slowly tipping the balance, allow me to make a plea for tea!
Masala is the Hindi word for spice, and chai of course means tea. As with cooking spice mixes like garam (hot) masala, often masala chai ingredients vary according to household or local tradition.
Tea itself has many health benefits (regardless of processing, all teas – black, green, white and oolong – are rich in anti-oxidant and heart-healthy polyphenols and flavenoids), and these are enriched by the addition of various spices, such as ginger, cardamom and cinnamon.
Not only are these spices warming and nourishing, they reduce the mucous-forming effects of milk, and mitigate the negative effects of theine (…and caffeine! Many cultures add cardamom to coffee to make it less bitter and easier on the digestive system).
Masala chai is balancing for Vata (especially if the black tea quantities are reduced) and Pitta (take it easy on the spices!). Kapha types can enjoy it in moderation, avoiding too much sugar and milk!
Here is my recipe for making two mugs or four small cups of Masala Chai:
In a metal pot, start boiling 1 cup of water, into which you put a heaping tablespoon of loose (strong) black tea, plus all or some of the following spices, according to preference:
Traditionally, these are the primary spices:
1 tablespoon fresh chopped or grated ginger
8-9 crushed cardamom pods, or 1.5 teaspoons powdered
For extra flavour and nourishment:
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon or a broken cinnamon stick
A small piece of natural liquorice stalk, cut up (not the candy!)
A few turns from the pepper mill (black or pink peppercorns)
A pinch of turmeric
A pinch of nutmeg
2 or 3 cloves
Tulsi (Holy Basil) tea can also be added, or can replace the black tea altogether. Tulsi is rich in nutrients and anti-oxidants, relieves stress, and is tonic.
Let everything boil together for two or three minutes, until about half the water has evaporated, then add 1.5 cups of fresh milk (prefer organic, raw or “microfiltered” milk if available, and avoid UHT milk) and bring to a boil again. Stay close by and stir often, as the milk can easily boil over! Strain into cups or a teapot and serve with sugar.
In India, the sugar is generally added along with the spices and tea, but I like to add it afterwards so it can be adjusted to taste. Prefer raw cane sugar – especially in the form of jaggery, muscovado, or rapadura – which contains important minerals and has fewer calories than refined sugar.
While you’re savouring your chai, take a virtual journey through the sub-continent with “Hot Tea Across India” by my friend Rishad Saam Mehta, who is an engaging travel writer and fearless (and perpetual) voyager, with many cups of tea under his belt. Enjoy!