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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Storm in a Teacup – the truth about Masala Chai

By Chandana Banerjee

If you want to add a dash of spice to an otherwise cold and dreary day, here is the perfect pick-me-up. A steaming cup of masala chai, brewed with fragrant spices, is a treat for tea-lovers across the world.

Chai comes from ‘cha’, the Chinese word for tea and masala is the Indian word for spices. Together they form masala chai – a term that conjures up an image of cardamoms, cloves, ginger, pepper and a host of spices bubbling in a pot with loose tea leaves, a dash of milk and a hint of sugar.

Tea in the Indian Terrain:

Chai is an important part of Indian culture and most Indians can’t do without their daily dose of masala chai. A typical morning in India begins with a steaming cup of tea relished with biscuits or buns, followed up by several cups through the morning. Evening tea is another elaborate affair, where masala chai is served with sumptuous snacks and crisp, golden samosas.

If you’re a traveler visiting India; living in a hostel with zero cooking facilities; or, just too busy to make some tea for yourself, then the local tea vendor or chaiwallah will only be too happy to serve you some. You’ll find tea vendors preparing masala chai over open fires in little stands and stalls, doling out the beverage in freshly-fired earthen cups. Chaiwallahs also weave their way into trains and buses, where they serve cups of cheer, generously laced with spices and sugar to the passengers.

Making Masala Chai:

Every family has their own distinct recipe for preparing masala chai and there is no wrong way to make it. The commonly used spices include:

Green cardamom, a fragrant spice that adds a full-bodied flavor to the tea; crushed cinnamon, whole cloves and peppercorns to pack a punch; and, a piece of fresh ginger to add that warm, citrus essence to masala chai. You could also add a hint of Ajwain (a relative of caraway), nutmeg, lemongrass, coriander seed, fennel or chocolate to your cup of masala chai.

Traditional masala chai is a combination of these savory spices, which are ground and boiled in water. Black tea is added to this spice mixture, strained and combined with milk. Sugar, honey or jaggery (unrefined cane sugar) is then added to this mixture to bring out the robust flavors of the spices.

Hearty and healing, masala chai is infused with Ayurvedic properties, and is also a home remedy to soothe sore throats. So next time, you’re feeling blue; down with the flu; or, just want to relish something delicious, make yourself a cup of masala chai.

While there are lots of ways of making masala chai, here’s one for starters:

What you need:

4 whole cloves
2 cardamom pods
1 cinnamon stick - broken into pieces
3 cups water
1/4 teaspoon ginger – ground or grated
1/8 teaspoon black pepper - freshly ground
1/2 cup milk
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons Black tea


A small saucepan
A strainer


  • In a mortar, crush the cloves, cardamom pods and cinnamon and place them in a saucepan.
  • Add the water, ginger and pepper and bring to a boil.
  • Remove the pan from the heat, cover and let the spices steep for 5 minutes.
  • Pour the milk and add sugar to the saucepan and bring to a boil.
  • Remove from the heat and add the tea. Cover and steep for a few minutes.
  • Strain it and pour in cups.
  • Sip it in style.

Chandana Banerjee is a writer and an editor with over 13 years of experience in writing for various media like websites, newspapers, magazines, ebooks, children’s books, print ads, e-learning and corporate communications. She scribbles (ahem..that would be writing and editing) all through the day in her cozy little home-office, and home can be different parts of the country (India), at different points in time.