Chai (which just means tea) is the quintessential Indian beverage and one of my favorite things to drink. Most of the time, what you are drinking is masala chai, a blend of warming spices, black tea and milk. It is served alongside cookies or crackers, with spicy curries, or with some dosa or idli, and if you’ve ever visited an Indian friend’s house, you were probably offered some. You can enjoy it for breakfast or at tea time, or even in the evening if caffeine doesn’t keep you awake. It is so soothing and warming, you can drink it anytime (and I do)!
There is no single recipe for masala chai. There are many liquid concentrates or masala chai tea bags that are widely available, and they can taste incredibly different. The types and proportions of spices that are used are different from recipe to recipe, brand to brand. Most masala chai blends include ground ginger, green cardamom, cinnamon, black pepper, cloves, and nutmeg, though they can also include star anise, fennel, and allspice. The balance of spices is very important since too much of one or not enough of another can take a chai from “just okay” to “amazing.” It all comes down to personal tastes and preferences. Speaking of which, I have discovered that most commercially available chai blends include too much cinnamon, which overpowers the flavors of the other spices and creates a flavor that I don’t really like. That is why I never put cinnamon in my chai.
I learned to make chai from my mother-in-law, and her take on masala chai is my absolute favorite (I wrote about how comforting and wonderful a good cup of chai is for me in this post). She calls it Ginger Chai because the star ingredient is fresh ginger. I love ginger! Sometimes she adds a few whole cloves or a couple of green cardamom pods, but the spicy punch of ginger coupled with some jaggery, black tea, and creamy whole milk is is just divine on its own.
The best sweetener for ginger chai is jaggery, or gur, an unrefined cane sugar that has a rich caramel flavor and gives the right amount of sweetness. I have tried making chai without any sugar or sweeteners (when doing a 21DSD, for example), but the flavor just isn’t right. The sugar brings out the flavors of the ginger and the tea, and a little bit goes a long way. Start with a little and add more as needed. Don’t have jaggery? Use coconut sugar, brown sugar, or really any sugar/sweetener you have around that you like. You can even use honey, though it tends to be a bit too strong for my tastes.
You can use any black tea, but I like the taste of Ceylon the best (this is the one I use).
Also, it is worth noting that tea is typically sprayed with pesticides, which are not washed off during processing. For this reason, I highly recommend always choosing organic teas.
A note about milk: I always use organic whole cow’s milk to make chai. This is the traditional choice (though in India they often use buffalo milk), and frankly, it tastes the best. If you don’t tolerate cow’s milk, you can make this with goat milk, a nut/seed milk (such as almond or cashew), or with coconut milk (I would use a 50/50 mixture of water and full fat coconut milk), though I can’t promise that it will taste as good. If you do try a non-cow’s milk, let me know how it turns out!
- 1 cup water
- thumb length of fresh ginger, peeled, sliced, and smashed (about 1 Tbsp, or more if you like more gingery zing!)
- 1 Tbsp. jaggery or other sugar
- 2 cups organic whole milk
- 4 black tea bags
- optional: a few whole cloves and/or green cardamom pods
- Heat water, ginger, and jaggery in a medium saucepan over medium heat. If you are adding cloves or cardamom, add them to the water as well. Stir occasionally until the jaggery is dissolved and the water begins to boil.
- Remove the tags from the tea bags and tie the bags together. Add the tea bags to the hot water and let steep for 2-3 minutes.
- Add the milk and heat, stirring occasionally, until it reaches a boil. Press the tea bags against the side of the pan if you want a stronger tea flavor.
- Remove the pan from heat and pour the chai into two cups through a fine mesh strainer.