Masala Chai 101
Winter means lingering longer under blankets, the glow of a fireplace (or way too many candles), and a warming cup of tea embraced my both hands. Beyond the temperature of the steep, there are certain spices that sing the song of the season. One particular tea blend that embraces the blend of exotic spices, is a chai tea. However, the true name of this blend is Masala Chai tea. In Indian culture, “Masala” translates to “blend of spices” and “chai” translates to “tea.” So, when you make your way to the café counter and order a “chai tea” you’re actually ordering a “Tea tea.” The base tea in this aromatic blend is most often an Indian Assam black tea that is smooth, malty, robust and can stand up spiced companions along with with sweetener and milk.
While traditional spices in a Masala Chai blend include cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, black peppercorn and star anise, there are new variations to the treasured tea (think coconut, fennel seeds, cacao nibs, vanilla). Beyond spices, the base black tea is sometimes swapped for a caffeine-free Rooibos that still offers an earthy backdrop to the spices (although isn’t as sturdy as Assam when milk is mixed in). Now, before you run to your nearest café requesting this steamy sip, keep in mind that many serve a pre-mixed chai from a box that they simply steam to warm and serve (and is often pre-sweetened to a point of sugar shock). To truly channel your inner Masala Chai goddess, find a tea blend and craft the steep at home to experience the purity of the sip.
When selecting a Masala Chai tea, look for blends that use real spices over flavors (that are applied to the tea leaves) for the most natural taste.
Steeping: To enjoy the Masala Chai tea blend without a dairy delight, simply steep 1 tablespoon of the tea blend in 1 cup of boiling water for 3 to 5 minutes, strain the tea and enjoy (take a taste before you add any sweetener to experience the aromatic sip and to uncover each spice note). Experiment with the timing of the steep, sipping at the 3, 4 and 5-minute mark, to discover your perfect strength. Although if you prefer the tea a bit stronger, exceeding a 5-minute steep will only extract a bitter brew. Instead, play with the amount of tea ranging from 1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon (or somewhere in between, goldilocks).
Traditionally, Masala Chai tea is steeped in both water and milk for a lighter latte. While there are many variations of the recipe, one that I truly enjoy is mixing 2 tablespoons of Masala Chai in 1 cup of water and 1 cup of milk (almond or coconut milk are great substitutes) in a saucepan on the stove. Heat the steep to a boil, lower the temp to a simmer, and let steep (while stirring) for 5 minutes. If you are a fan of floral flavor, you can always add a splash of rosewater or orange blossom water (and even a dash of pure vanilla extract or a scrape of seeds from a vanilla bean). After 5 minutes have passed, simply strain the tea from the milk/water mixture into a tea pot and stir in a sweetener (honey, agave, sugar, etc). You can start sipping, or whip up the steep with a milk frother for an airy texture.
For the ultimate DIY approach, stock up on a few of the key spices and the Assam black tea base to create your own signature blend. Head to the bulk section of a gourmet grocer (if possible) and add green cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks, whole cloves, black peppercorn and fennel seed or star anise to your cart. And don’t forget the Assam black tea base that you can easily purchase in a specialty tea shop. When you’re back in the comfort of your kitchen, start to experiment in your very own DIY tea lab. Rather than make big batches, start with small batches of spices to steep cup by cup to find the right mix for you.
For a jump start, combine 2 teaspoons of Assam black tea with 3 cardamom pods (lightly cracked to expose their seeds inside), 3 cloves, 1-2 thin slices of fresh ginger, 1 cinnamon stick (opt for Mexican or Vietnamese cinnamon if you are in a gourmet spice shop), 1 piece of star anise (or ¼ teaspoon whole fennel seeds), and 2 whole black peppercorns. Steep the latter spice and tea mix in 1 cup of water for 3 to 5 minutes, or multiply the quantities above by two to make enough of the Masala Chai tea blend for the prior latte recipe. And before you master your signature blend, don’t forget to play with a bit more complex flavors like different honeys (wildflower, amber, etc), vanilla extract or beans and floral waters.
Gather your favorite ladies and gents for a DIY Masala Chai par-tea (yes, I had to make that pun). Simply place each spice and the Assam black tea base in teacups on a pretty tray or table runner in the center of your kitchen table (bonus it doubles as a center piece and scents the room). Side note – lately I love making faux table runners by layering tea towels down the center of the table (like these striped gems). Make sure each guest has a small plate and a teaspoon (antique shops often have lots of lovely vintage teaspoons). You’ll also want to supply each guest with two paper filters (I prefer these), so that they can fill one filter to steep at your place and another to take home and enjoy later. Add a second tray for sweeteners, milk and flavor enhancers (vanilla extract, orange blossom water, rose water, etc). To set a sentimental mood, ask guests to bring their favorite tea cup to steep their tea (stories will flow and you won’t have to worry about searching the top shelf for extra mugs and cups). Whether you crowd your table with a flurry of friends or simply steep alone, let this aromatic Masala Chai tea blend warm you all winter long (another excuse to stay close to the kettle).