You can find loose-leaf and bagged masala tea in fancy tea shops and chains like Starbucks. What is masala tea? Let’s look at its background, ingredients, and how it’s become a popular beverage in Western countries.
Masala tea is most commonly known as masala chai, with chai being the Hindi word for tea and masala being an Indian and southern Asian word for spice blend. Thus, masala tea or masala chai translates to spice tea. Normally, masala tea or masala chai is a sweet Indian drink made from black tea and milk with multiple warming spices like ginger, cinnamon, and cloves.
The History of Masala Tea
The history of masala chai begins with the British. In 1608, the British-owned East India Tea Company was the only trading company that Queen Elizabeth I allowed to trade with India. When China began restricting trade with the East India Tea Company in the 1820s, the company started to look for places to grow tea in India.
During their first 50 years, their tea didn’t taste so great, and the planters needed new customers. Thus, in 1901, the India Tea Association launched a 40-year campaign, opening up tea stalls everywhere to try to push cheap tea on Indians and make tea-drinking part of their culture. By the end of the 20th century, the company was able to sell 70% of its tea to Indians.
Between World War I and the 1930s, chaiwallahs (street tea vendors) who wanted to get the most out of the cheap, bitter, and strong tea started to add spices to make the tea go further. This change cut into the Association’s profits, so they shut down many chai masala stalls. However, many chaiwallahs continued to add spices as an act of rebellion against the British.
When I last visited India, the call of “chai–ee” from chaiwallahs selling milky, sweet masala chai was common everywhere from trains to streets, so the rebellion birthed a cultural tradition that seems here to stay.
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Different regions in India and South Asia make different masala chais with a variety of ingredients, brewing styles, and serving styles. Here are a few types of masala tea types that are possible to experience:
- Butter chai: In the Himalayas, butter is a common addition to masala tea.
- Kashmiri tea: In northern India and Pakistan, drinkers use wood-flavored green tea and milk, brewing with a masala of saffron, cinnamon, almonds, and cloves. It may also include
- Tulsi chai: Tulsi chai is a popular tea in the Assam and Dooars region of north India. It includes the sacred holy basil, Tulsi.
- Kadak chai: Kadak chai is a strong tea made by boiling loose-leaf tea longer than normal and then adding milk.
- Adrak lemongrass chai: In areas like Gujarat and Maharashtra in west India, chai includes black tea, lemongrass, and ginger.
- Cutting chai: In Mumbai in western India, they make extremely strong cutting chai with cardamom, ginger, and fennel. Because of its strength, it usually comes in a small serving.
- Kesar chai: In eastern India, especially in Odisha, masala tea includes saffron, pepper, and cinnamon. They also use a variety of milk, including evaporated, condensed, or regular.
- Sulaimani chai: In southern India, Sulaimani chai is a masala black tea with lemon that locals often use as a digestif. It doesn’t include milk.
- Madrasi chai: In Madras, in southern India, their masala tea is flavored with ginger, mace, cinnamon, and black pepper.
Making Masala Tea
The process of making authentic masala chai is different than making a chai latte. The essential ingredients in the most basic version of masala tea are tea leaves (usually black tea), water, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, black peppercorns, sugar, and milk.
Crushing whole spices with a mortar and pestle or grinder will give you the most authentic Indian flavor.
Use water and milk on a 2-to-1 ratio (one cup of milk for every two cups of water). For tea with two cups of water and one milk, you’ll need two teaspoons of black tea, two cardamom pods, a one-inch chunk of ginger, one whole clove, and half a cinnamon stick, and one-quarter teaspoon of black peppercorn.
Add the tea and crushed spices to the two cups of boiling water. After simmering for two minutes, lower the heat and add the milk. Raise the temperature until it boils, lower it until the bubbles stop, and then bring it to a boil again.
Simmer the tea for two to four minutes, then pour it through a strainer into cups. Add sugar until it reaches your desired level of sweetness.
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