masala chai

The Unique Masala Chai – Short History and Recipes

When I used to hear people asking for masala chai tea, the first thing that came to my mind was, “why are they asking for tea tea.”
The origin of the word “chai” is derived from the Chinese word for tea, “chá (茶),” and is used in India and many other parts of the world to describe tea.

At present, chai is associated with a spiced blend beverage masala chai, often served with milk, but it has little to do with how it all began.

How It All Began

The “real” and “true” story is based on a 5000-year-old legend. A king existed a long time ago somewhere in India or Siam, who wanted to help his people live a healthy and long life. He ordered a unique medicinal beverage to be created and used in Ayurveda, a traditional therapeutic practice in which herbs and spices are used for healing and considered by many to be the oldest healing science. In Sanskrit, Ayurveda means “The Science of Life, and here in the West, we can probably say” the predecessor of Homeopathy.”

Herbs and spices were blended in myriad ways and used as medicine or just drunk for good health. The blend of these spices is called masala, hence masala/chai or “spiced tea.”
The chai at that time had little to do with the chai as we know it today; black or green teas were not part of the recipe. It was a spiced beverage drunk hot or cold for medicinal purposes or minor aches.

British Empire
British-Empire-1800-1890 Bartholomew, John, 1831-1893

It was not until the 1830s when the British East India Company saw the abundance of Assamese tea plants. It decided it would be an excellent opportunity to compete against the Chinese tea producers. Until 1870, 90% of Britain’s tea consumption was made from tea made in China.
The demand for tea in Britain was ever-growing, and the dependency on China for tea supply was strange at that time, considering the British controlled about one-fifth of the world. Yet, they were unable to acquire seeds needed for growing tea.

They couldn’t control the price or the quality of the tea, as the Chinese had a monopoly over tea production, leading to the opium trade. They sold opium to the Chinese and used the proceeds to buy tea and silk. That eventually led to two Opium wars between 1839 and 1860, as the governing Qing dynasty was not very happy with the country’s increased consumption and opium addiction.

By the mid-1800,s the East India Company was losing the tea trade monopoly, and they were looking to establish their plantations in the Northeast of British India. There were just two problems:

  1. India didn’t have the Chinese Sinensis tea plant variety, Assam had the assamica plant variety.
  2. The company didn’t have the expertise of how to grow and produce tea. They needed to find seeds, Chinese gardeners, and the know-how of the whole process.

Then in 1848, something happened that changed the landscape of tea production forever.

“greatest single act of corporate espionage in history”

Sarah Rose in her book For All the Tea in China – Espionage, Empire and the Secret Formula for the World’s Favorite Drink

Enter the world of Robert Fortune, botanist, gardener, spy. He was hired by the East India Company for a clandestine trip into China interior territories, forbidden to foreigners, with one mission – to steal the closely guarded secrets of tea. Secrets carefully guarded for centuries had to be acquired and brought to British India. In the end, he completed his task of bringing the seeds and secrets of tea making to the East India Company. In the following decades, India became a world-leading tea producer until 2006, when China gained the world’s top producer.

Note: after a century, Robert Fortune, a botanist, didn’t think of his actions as property theft. For him, plants didn’t belong to anyone, and people were free to share and use them—the British invested in cultivating the tea plants and developing local grower plantations. As a result, by the turn of the 1900s, almost 90% of the imported teas were coming from India and Ceylon.
In India, the people were not trying the newly discovered tea, and the consumption was pretty low. They preferred their old traditional ways. The British East India Company had to do something to change that and develop the demand for tea in the domestic market.


At the beginning of the 1900s, the British-owned Indian Tea Association came with a brilliant marketing campaign geared towards employers giving the workers “tea breaks,” which meant the employees now had more time to drink tea. They even supported many “chai wallahs” – tea vendors throughout the growing railway system.1

Assam 1
Tea Cultivation during British India Joseph Lionel Williams after Thomas Brown, 1850, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The steps they took to change the low demand and resistance of most people towards the tea is a fascinating story.
In 1903 the Tea Cess Committee, renamed in 1933 to the Indian Tea Market Expansion Board,  was established to promote local consumption; the tea was so unfamiliar to the consumers that they had to include instructions on how to drink it even give small packages for free.


Before 1920, the Indian Tea Association, made up of British companies, focused on exporting tea and developing the large US market. Even though the demand was there, the retail tea prices were flattening. Combining this price trend with the significant financial and economic turmoil in the US during the Great Depression made more financial sense to concentrate their efforts on developing the local market.

The problem was, besides the North where they were drinking tea for centuries, and the tea port of Calcutta, the rest of the country didn’t fancy boiling leaves with milk, water, spices, and sugar.

The negative public opinion was a significant obstacle in adopting the tea, fueled by people such as Acharya Prafulla Ray, an eminent chemist, and a passionate nationalist, who in 1920 published cartoons equating tea with poison.
Another widely held belief was that tea made the skin darker; at that time, many people were obsessed with fair skin, and the tea was off the menu.

Gandhi strongly opposed the intake of tea and put it in the same class of avoidable substances like tobacco and cacao. He called tea

“an Intoxicant …and tannin when taken internally impairs digestion and causes dyspepsia.” Instead, he suggested that honey, hot water, and lemon as nourishing drinks.

Mahatma Gandhi book, A Key to Health 1942, p.21
Tea leaves varieties
Tea plant Chinese- Japanese Ceylon leaves – seeds

He wrote that the only reason the Chinese were drinking tea, is because the water was contaminated and needed to be boiled. Since boiling tea leaves changes the color of the water, the leaves were used to decide if the water was safe to drink.

Some clever Chinaman discovered a grass called tea which when
added to boiling water in a very small quantity gave it a golden colour. The
colour did not appear unless the water was really boiling. Thus the grass
became an infallible test for seeing when a given quantity of water was boiled

Mahatma Gandhi book, A Key to Health 1942, p. 21

The Indian Tea Association was persistent in their efforts to change public opinion, they were putting out illustrated advertisements at railway stations, and new tea shops were popping along railways. Boiling was introduced as an antidote to “poisonous” tea, and the advertisements were promoting health benefits such as “an increased stamina”.

Tea promotion 1940
Tea promotion 1940

Initially, the tea vendors were instructed to sell the chai according to the Indian Tea Association’s recommendation for tea with a small amount of milk and sugar2, but that didn’t go very well as the locals liked their Masala chai. They were adding spices, more milk, and sugar into the tea.
The Tea association didn’t like adding more milk, as it was diluting the tea and cutting into their profits. But eventually, the local taste and preferences prevailed, and that’s how the masala chai, as we know it today, was born.

Another major step in increased popularity happened in the 1960s with the development of a new tea-producing technique, CTC (cut, tear, curl), producing inexpensive tea capable of fast infusion and intense flavor.
The strong flavor is a very important tea quality in making chai; when we mix something with milk we need, the flavoring agent to have enough aroma to cut through the heavier texture of the dairy product. Think of making White Russian; unless we use lots of Kahlua, we will barely notice the coffee aroma in the drink.

Main Tea Producing Regions in India

India, together with China, is two of the biggest producers and consumers of black tea in the world. Some of the primary producing states in India are  Assam, West Bengal – Darjeeling, Tamil Nadu, Kerala. Many of them are black tea producers, but recently lots of tea diversification had developed, especially in the Darjeeling region, known for oolong, green, and white tea. Not every area in India is suitable to grow good quality tea, as it requires specific climate conditions with lots of moisture. This is one of the reasons the major tea-producing areas are located in the Northeastern part –  Darjeeling, and Assam, and in the South – Nilgiri and Kerala.

source:https://www.indiatea.org/tea_growing_regions

Annually India’s production is 1.2 million tons, contributing 4% to the national budget, and as much as half of it is consumed locally. The major regions are Assam and Darjeeling.

Two of the Major Indian Tea production areasCharacteristics
Assam TeaGrown on the lowlands in the Northeast, south of eastern Himalayas, on an area of clay soil, rich in nutrients and combined with the humid rainy season is perfect for growing tea. The flavor of Assam tea has a stronger flavor than Darjeeling, which makes it ideal for masala chai with milk and sugar.
Darjeeling Tea Darjeeling is located high in the foothills of the Himalayas. It is spicier than the Assam tea, and as recommended by the Tea Board of India, is to be drunk with no milk or sugar, also frequently referred to as “champagne of teas”.

Sri Lanka/Ceylon Tea

Formerly known as Ceylon, Sri Lanka is the world’s fourth-largest tea-producing country, with around 340,230 tons. The British introduced the crop in the 1860s to boost production and compete with China.
Currently, one of the major exporters of Orthodox teas is known as Ceylon teas. Mainly known as black tea, now Ceylon tea comes in different varieties, including green and white. There is no single description of the tea, as there are 7 distinct regions, all with their distinctive characteristics and flavor profiles. Still, the taste is from citrus to spicy, which is important if drunk traditionally. In masala chai, however, the spices will overpower the delicate tea aromas, and choosing which tea will use is a matter of personal preference.

Spices used in Chai

The type of spices used in the spice blend/masala is the all-important part of making masala chai, as it provides a specific aroma to chai. Back in time, they chose which spice to be used based on their potential health benefits. There is no rule or particular recipe standard to judge what is good or bad masala chai, as probably every household in India has its recipe. In general, it is accepted that there are few spices usually present in the spice blend; fresh ginger, black peppercorns, mace, cardamom, cloves, star anise are some of them.
Whether to use all or some of them is about personal preference, much like creating a cocktail. Not having a set recipe allows people to experiment and make masala chai fun.

Spice Flavor Profile

Cardamom (Elaichi) –Elettaria Cardamomum – tropical fruit in the ginger family. it has a sweet, lemony, eucalyptus flavor. It is the world’s second most expensive spice. Green cardamoms are the most common, most often combined with saffron. 3

cardamom

Cinnamon (Dalchni) – a sweet-tasting spice, with a warm, woody aroma, stimulates the senses and calms the nerves. The thinnest bark is the best quality cinnamon. It is available as a powder as well.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Cinnamomum_verum_spices.jpg

Simon A. Eugster

Cloves (Luong) – small, dried, reddish-brown flower buds of the tropical evergreen tree of the myrtle family.
They have a strong, sweet aroma and hot, pungent taste, Cloves are best bought whole.

ClovesDried

Photograph by Brian Arthur CC BY 2.5

Peppercorns (Kali Mirchi) – pepper’s name comes from the Sanskrit Pippali nigrum, which means “black spice. Black pepper is more aromatic, white is stronger and hotter. 

Variants of Pepper

Wiki Commons CC BY SA 3.0

Ginger (Adrak)-a sweet aroma and hot, pungent taste.

Ginger in China 01

Public Domain

Mace is the fleshy lattice, covering of the nutmeg (hard nut), which is golden brown in color.  Similar flavor to nutmeg.

The feathery reddish aril that covers each nutmeg seed is removed to make mace.

aril nutmeg seed mace
NUTMEG

Image: nutmeg and mace
Encyclopedia Britannica

Illicium verum is a medium-sized evergreen tree native to northeast Vietnam and southwest China. A spice commonly called star anise, star anise seed. Star anise contains anethole, the same compound that gives the unrelated anise its flavor. Don’t use the Japanese star anise, it is poisonous.

Dried Star Anise Fruit Seeds

CC BY-SA4.0

Saffron (Zaffran) – the most expensive spice in the world, pungent,
honey-like flavor and aroma.

safron

CC by SA 4.0

Recipes

Making chai^ is pretty straightforward; all we need is a masala/spice blend, water, tea, milk, and sugar. We can go to the store and buy an already packaged chai or masala powder/Garam chai masala, add some hot water, milk (hot or cold), sugar, and we are good to go. It is an easy and fast way of having a cup of tea when we are in a hurry; the only thing is we don’t have much control over the final product’s flavor.

aditya joshi 0l3mh0iy dc unsplash 1

While I’m working with recipes and flavors, I always ask myself, “Can I make it taste better or different?” I’m dependent on someone else’s flavor perception by using prepackaged masala, and not much I can do to change that. Making my own spice blend allows me to be in control, and it gives me the flexibility to modify the chai masala mix as I go.

There are usually 5 ingredients in chai, water, tea, milk, sugar, and spice blend – masala. The most common spices are ginger, cardamom, and peppercorns; the traditional milk used in India is buffalo milk and In, some places, condensed milk is also added as a sweetener. If one is milk intolerant or prefers having a black tea, skip the milk, use a non-dairy one, or add more water in place of milk.
To make chai with no milk, add the spices to boiling water, and squeeze a wedge of lemon before serving.

Let’s look at some ideas and recipes of different spice blends I came across and enjoyed making it.

Masala Mix – Garam chai masala

Masala chai

Garam is related to the hot and warmness of the spices and masala to the blend. Making Garam chai masala at home will allow one to make small batches of different herbs and use these the same way as the store-bought ones.

The four recipes below are based on the most commonly used ingredients of ginger, cardamom, cloves, peppercorn, and cinnamon. Adding additional spices to these common ingredients is probably the easiest way to create Garam chai masala. Does every recipe follow this principle to blend spices? I’m not sure, as the masala recipes will depend on the choice of the spices and herbs and personal taste preference?

How to Make Masala

2 ½ teaspoons of ground ginger – 10 g fresh peeled ginger
2 teaspoons of ground cinnamon
¾ teaspoon of ground cloves
¾ teaspoon of ground green cardamom
1 teaspoon of ground allspice
1 teaspoon of ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon of finely-ground black pepper4


Whole Spices

6 g Cloves
6 g Green Cardamom
6 g Black Peppercorns
2 g Fennel Seeds
1 stick Cinnamon
5 g Ginger powder
1/4 teaspoon Nutmeg grated


10 g cloves
20 g green cardamom
5 g black peppercorn
1/ 2 stalk of cut lemongrass
15 g dried ginger powder – 10 g peel fresh ginger

Whole Spices

8 g ginger
8 g cinnamon
8 g cardamom
8 g cloves
5 g black pepper


10 g cloves
20 g green cardamom
5 g black peppercorn
1 sticks cinnamon
15 g dried ginger powder – 10 g peel fresh ginger
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 tsp nutmeg powder


10 g cloves
20 g green cardamom
5 g black peppercorn
1 sticks cinnamon
10 g peel fresh ginger
2 g fennel seeds
2 g licorice

I usually use one of the following ways to prepare the spices before grinding them to a powder.

  1. Roasting
    – If using ground spices, cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, peppercorn, use a hot sauté pan and quickly toss them about 30 seconds to a minute, no need for oil. Keep it in an air-tight container.
  2. Baking
    – If using whole spices, you can bake them in the oven. Preheat the oven to 350 F, place them on a tray, and bake for about 5 min, if they turn black shorten the baking time. Keep it in an air-tight container.
    Note: I prefer using the Roasting/Baking process prior to grinding as that brings out the aromatics, especially from the whole spices.
    I add fresh Ginger and Nutmeg, if the recipe calls for, in the later steps.
  3. Freezing
    – Freeze the spices for about 2 hours and then blend into a fine powder, using spice/coffee grinder or pestle and mortar.
    I use this method when I work with mastic to make Dondurma ice cream.

Grinding – After the cooking process is done, it is time to put them into a spice grinder; at that point, we can add ginger. I prefer a fresh chopped one. After that, grate the nutmeg/mace in the powder. (Mace is the outer covering of the nutmeg), and blend them into a fine powder. *Nutmeg powder can be sprinkled on the chai as part of the garnish. Nutmeg is the seed, and it can be substituted with mace in a 1:1 ratio.
Note: To save time, no thermal processing is required. Grind all the spices without roasting/baking, keep them in an air-tight container until needed.
Use 1/4 to 1 teaspoon of the mix later in tea making process.

Tea Time – How to make Masala Chai

chai tea 1

It is finally Tea Time, let’s make some tea. If desired, all we need is Garam chai masala -we just created water, tea leaves/bags, milk, and sugar.
I drink black tea, and I often make myself Black Masala Chai, but since it is not that common, let’s start with a regular recipe.
I do not include here the store-bought chai as every producer specifies on the box their preferred way of making it.

Masala Chai Tea

2 cups of water
2 teaspoons of loose tea leaves or 2-3 bags of black tea
1/2 cup to 1 cup milk
1 tablespoon of sugar or sweetener of choice
3/4 teaspoon masala mix

How to:

  • Add tea and fresh spring water to a pot and bring almost to a boil*
  • Add Masala mix of your choice and let boil for 3 minutes turn on medium
  • Add sugar and milk and bring to boil on medium heat, 3-4 minutes, stirring occasionally, make sure it doesn’t overflow.
  • Strain and serve
    Note: If your masala doesn’t have ginger, it can be added during the first boiling step.
    *Water temperature while making tea will depend on the type of tea being used. For Black tea – around 190F, For green tea – between 170F-185F.

Masala Chai with no Milk

Make it the same way as the regular recipe; substitute milk with the same amount of water. Someone might wonder, why not with milk? There are a few reasons for people not wanting milk in their chai, such as diet and lactose intolerance. I know there are dairy substitutes, but they are usually loaded with hydrocolloids(carrageen, guar gum, etc.), at the end of the day, we can make our drink anyway we prefer to.

From a flavor point of view, one more reason for no milk, the spices are more potent, rich, and the aromatics shine through. Using milk traps the intensity of the herbs and creates a milder drink to a certain degree.

Black Masala Chai

3 3/4 cups water
1 1/2 oz of honey or maple syrup
3 teaspoon Green or Black tea – optional
Masala mix-use one of your choices
8 g ginger
8 g cardamom
8 g cloves
5 g black pepper
1/2 stalk of lemongrass – finely chopped

How to:

  • Pour water in a pot and bring it to a boil, In the meantime peel and grate the ginger over the water.
  • Add the rest of the spices and the lemongrass.
  • Boil for 2-3 minutes and simmer on low for about 45 minutes, add sweetener at this point – skip it for a lower calorie drink.
  • 5 to 10 minutes before finish simmering, add the tea and let it steep. This an optional step, you can skip the tea, and drink it like that, cold or hot.
    In effect, we are making infused syrup, which can be used in a number of cocktails as well.
  • Serving – Fine strain and serve it right away or let it cool down, put it in the fridge for the next day. Serve it cold or heat it up again.
  • Squeeze a lemon wedge over the chai before serving.

There are many uses of chai masala mix; besides in cooking or making chai, it is a truly versatile ingredient and is often incorporated in recipes such as:

  • ice cream
  • mixed with matcha tea for a smoothie
  • in cocktail recipes as syrup
  • making mulled wine
  • punch
  • in Apple cider

I used masala to make foam in Short Island Iced Tea and some of the Apple Cider Recipes I made.

Footnotes

  1. masala chai
  2. chai history
  3. spices
  4. make chai

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