The word chai originated from the Hindustani word chai which was derived from the Chinese word for tea, known as cha. Chai just means tea in India. Outside of India it is often known as masala chai to indicate the inclusion of spices.
The making of Chai uses techniques that go against all of the rules of British-influenced methods of brewing tea. It is brewed in milk rather than seeped in water. The tea that goes into making chai is simmered for some time, rather than seeped for under a minute or two. It is sweetened as a matter of course. And of course, chai includes spices (although it can be made without spices). Chai tastes nothing like regular tea with milk.
There is a distinct method or ritual for making chai, and one that I will share with you today. Tarak chai (also spelt kadak, karak and tadak) is a strong tea, and describes the taste that you get when tea is simmered rather than seeped, and simmered for a number of minutes.
Chai can be infused in water (milk is added later), directly into simmering milk, or in a combination of milk and water. Each household makes chai slightly differently.
What tea is used for making chai?
Chai can be made with Assam loose leaf black tea or even tea bags. Assam is used as it is strong enough that the spices and sweeteners do not overpower it. There are a few tricks of the trade though. Always add the tea to milk or water (or a combination) that is simmering on the stove. If using bags, tear them open.
For Kashmiri chai gunpowder tea is used.
Quite often mamri tea is used – mamri tea is a specific type of Assam. It has been cured in a special way that creates granules as opposed to “leaf” tea. It is inexpensive and the tea most often used in India. However, if you don’t have any Assam or mamri tea at hand, any black tea may be used.
What milk should I use?
In India buffalo milk or cow’s milk is used. Outside of India, use any cow’s milk – full fat, low fat, skimmed, powdered, evaporated or even condensed sweetened milk that has been diluted with plain milk or water. Full fat milk is the best (in my opinion). If using condensed milk, there is no need to add extra sweetener. If you prefer to drink chai without milk, just replace it with water.
What spices should I use?
It is very common to use cardamom or cardamom and ginger as the base. The base is called karha. After that you are limited only by your imagination. A selection of star anise, fennel seeds, nutmeg, cardamom seeds, cinnamon sticks, ground cloves, ginger, and black peppercorns is also usual. Many people love dried or fresh ginger and it is particularly good in Winter. For health, a pinch turmeric and a pinch black pepper are wonderful and also great Winter spices. Other spices can include nutmeg, mace, black cardamom, chilli, coriander, rose petals, and liquorice root. A small amount of cumin is also loved by some people.
Herbs can also be included, especially tulsi and/or lemongrass.
The traditional composition of spices often differs by climate and region of India. For example, in Western India, cloves and black pepper are expressly avoided. The Kashmiri version of chai, brewed with green gunpowder tea, has a subtle blend of flavourings: almonds, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and sometimes saffron. In Bhopal, typically, a pinch of salt is added. Some parts add a little ghee to the chai.
How should I use as a sweetener?
Traditionally, chai is a sweet drink. Some recipes will include 1 Tblspn sweetener per cup, but please sweeten to your own preference. Sugar enhances the flavour of the spices. Plain white sugar, brown sugars, palm or coconut sugars can be used. Jaggery is also used as a sweetener, often in rural parts of India.
What is Tarak Chai?
Tarak Chai is a strong version of chai, also very popular in S.E. Asian countries where it is also pulled tea that is almost a competitive sport amongst chai wallahs. It is also popular in Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Iran, and many other Arabic Gulf areas. Commonly it is made with condensed milk. Serve with Chapati for a delicious snack.
There is a beautiful ritual to making the best chai.
Take 1 cup water for each cup of chai that you wish to make and bring to a simmer. Add the spices and herbs (if using) and bring to a simmer while stirring periodically.
Add the tea and continue to simmer for 2 – 3 minutes, stirring gently. Use 1 tspn of tea or 1 tea bag per person. For Tadak Chai, use 1.5 – 2 tspn tea or 2 tea bags per person.
Add sugar to taste (palm sugar or raw sugar is best) and simmer again for a couple of minutes.
Turn the heat to low.
Add a cup of milk per person and allow the chai to slowly return to the boil, stirring occasionally. Simmer for about 5 minutes, stirring gently, letting it come slowly to the boil. Remove from the heat until it settles, place back on the heat and allow it to come to the boil again. Repeat this 3 times. The simmering of the milk condensed the milk through evaporation and this makes it sweeter with a beautiful creamy texture.
Then remove the chai from the heat, strain and serve.
I make chai with 1:1 ratio of milk to water, but this can be varied. Use 1:2 or 2:1 ratio if this is your preference.
Some people make chai with just milk – add the tea and spices to milk and simmer gently for 5 mins.
If you are in a hurry, just add water and milk with spices, sweetener and tea and simmer for up to 5 mins.
Make chai, cool it and refrigerate, then serve over ice on the hottest of days.
Where can I find Chai recipes?