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One chai please!
by Savia Rajagopal
Thursday, August 28, 2008 9:45 AM
It’s raining outside, the skies are dark and gloomy. Picture a steaming hot, aromatic cup of chai to warm a kindred soul. A captivating beverage by any standard, tea or chai as it’s traditionally called, is a drink for the masses. But we’re not here to talk about just any chai. For now, our focus of attention is on Masala Chai in all its glory.

Native to the Asian sub-continent, Masala chai or spiced tea is a popular way to make tea and share it with friends or family. A good quality tea, flavourful spices and a generous splash of milk are needed to make a perfect cuppa. In its current day presentation, many Western coffee shops and tea houses present chai lattes, where steamed milk is used with a pre-mixed spice preparation to create flavours that are subtle and unique. On the other hand, if you want to try the real thing, then you can find a recipe at the bottom of this page. For those who’d like to learn more about Masala Chai, here’s the lowdown:

Tea: Black tea is the best suited to making a strong, flavourful cup of chai. Assam tea is often preferred as a base in a typical masala chai recipe, as the flavour of the tea by itself, is not overwhelmed or lost due to the other spice ingredients.  Warm spices are added to the tea and the cumulative mixture is then gulped (or slurped!) down with much delight.

A classic version from Kashmir and other parts of Northern India use green tea, with a different set of spices and condiments – almonds, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves – to great effect. The tea flavoured so doesn’t taste as spicy but has a soothing taste.

Milk and Sugar: Masala chai by its very definition depends heavily on milk to enhance the flavours of the spice mix. Many tea connoisseurs suggest adding more milk than water to create masala tea worthy to be called so. The key lies in boiling the milk and water, with spices for a long time so that the liquid is thickened and does not taste weak. Whole milk is preferred for masala chai as it gives a rich flavour, although using a fat-free or low-fat option is a healthier choice. Some parts in Northern India add a dash of cream to the preparation to give it a rich, creamy taste.

Masala chai uses a lot of sugar and there are households where the tea is sweet beyond belief. Boiling the milk-tea preparation with the sugar adds flavour and taste to the final cup. Substituting honey for sugar is also a viable option if you prefer your tea ultra-sweet. Optionally using sweeteners and artificial sugar can give a slightly altered taste and must be added right at the very end.

Spice Mixture: Open to debate, is the “correct” mixture of spices for the perfect cuppa. But, like many things South Asian, there is no one fixed or absolute spice mixture that can be generalized for all masala chai recipes. Depending on personal tastes, cultural influences, the spice mixture varies across different households. However, most agree that in its simplest form, masala chai includes ginger and cardamom.

There are others who swear by a more elaborate mix of spices such as ginger, cardamom, cloves, black peppercorn, star anise and cinnamon. All of these spices are added to the tea to impart their own flavours to the final product.

Again, there is much debate on the timing of the addition of spices to the tea pot. Should you add the spices and allow your tea to simmer a while or drop the spices in right at the end to give your tea a touch of flavour? Households across India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka find their own method but a typical street chaiwallah swears by boiling the spice mix for a while till the tea gets a strong spicy flavour.

Recipe for Masala Chai: from Meena (http://www.hookedonheat.com/2005/12/15/a-cup-of-chai/)

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups water
  • 2 tsp tea powder
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 5-6 cloves
  • 5-6 green cardamom pods
  • a pinch of crushed black pepper
  • sugar, to taste

Method:

  • Boil water in a small pan and add tea and spices.
  • Add in milk, lower the heat and allow it to come to a boil.
  • Pour into cups through a strainer and add sugar according to taste.
  • Serve hot and feel your nerves begin to relax.


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