My first experience of masala chai probably occurred when I spent a semester in India during my senior year of college. We bought it on the streets, in restaurants and even through the train windows when we were stopped at stations. The chai wallahs would come by with their silver pots, calling out, CHAIIIII! CHAIIII! Usually we drank it from stainless steel cups, ladled full with this boiling hot, aromatic, creamy drink.
After returning from India, I’d enjoy masala chai at Indian restaurants and sometimes bought too-sweet imitations in aseptic boxes, or steeped it from teabags and added milk.
I really didn’t obsess over it until a little more than thirteen years ago, when we were preparing to adopt our son from India. I wondered, what smells will help this child feel at home when he arrives? The answer that kept coming to mind was masala chai.
So I started googling recipes and asking servers at Indian restaurants what went into their masala chai, and then experimenting at home. I made batch after batch, grinding up cardamom, cinnamon, fennel, cloves, ginger and turmeric in our repurposed coffee grinder, all the while hoping the spicy aroma would seep into the walls of our little house, and imagining that our son would smell chai when we brought him home and on some level it would help him feel instantly at home.
At least this project gave me a tangible and tasty way to prepare for my transition into motherhood.
Over the past year or more, I’ve been on a kick experimenting with chai spices. (My husband is constantly shaking his head and wiping up the errant seeds and powders that wind up scattered across our counter and stovetop.) Over the past few weeks, I’ve actually been measuring out and recording what I’ve done, so I can share a recipe with you.
But as I sit here typing, I realize that one of my favorite homemade masala chai recipes is probably that first one I made over and over back in 2008 (and many times since). It is a mash-up of a few recipes plus advice from a server at Vij’s restaurant in Vancouver, British Columbia. I still have the instructions I wrote on a blank address label and stuck to a spice bottle all those years ago. I made it again today, and here it is, if you’d like to join me for a cup of tea …
Prepare the masala:
(This spice mix will make many cups.)
3 inch cinnamon stick
5 black peppercorns
6-8 cardamom pods with shell (or about 3/4 teaspoon ground cardamom)
1 teaspoon ginger powder
some fennel seed
Grind the spices together in a spice/coffee grinder or with a mortar and pestle.
To make one cup of tea:
Put 1 cup of water in pan.
Add 1 teaspoon sugar or honey, 1 teaspoon tea and 1/4 teaspoon masala (the spice mix).
Bring it to a boil and simmer 1 minute.
Add 1/4 cup milk (or more).
Bring back to a boil and simmer 3-5 minutes.
Enjoy … and adapt it to your taste!