One of my best friends when I was a young man was called David Chawla. His mother was from the north of England and his father was from India. It was only years later that I realised that David’s surname was derived from the combination of the Hindi words ‘Chai’ (tea) and ‘Wallah’ (the person responsible for a particular task). So a “chawallah” is the person who makes the tea. In India, this is a job generally held by those with a lower status in society and may explain why David was determined to make a success of his life.
What is masala chai?
The word “chai”, “cha” or some version of it means tea in many languages around the world. “Masala” in Indian cuisine means a combination of spices: Masala chai, literally “mixed spice tea”, is a black tea-based drink to which a spice mixture, called a “karha”, is added. The karha usually contains ginger, green cardamom pods and a variety of other spices, and most families have their own masala chai recipe.
What we simply call masala chai is called masala chai tea in America, which means masala tea tea: I imagine that, like New York, they liked it so much that they named it twice.
How is tea served on the streets of India?
Like most things in the West, we tend to overdo it when it comes to masala chai, drinking it in large cups in diluted form. In India, masala chai is usually drunk as a shot, traditionally served in kulhads (rough, unglazed earthenware cups no larger than your average espresso cup).
Once drunk, the kulhad is thrown away to avoid the risk of ever drinking from a cup that has been used by a lower caste. The clay from the broken cups is reused to make new cups. Nowadays, masala chai is often served in small plastic cups.
The history of masala chai and the introduction of the tea break
In 1870, over 90% of the tea drunk in Britain was produced in China, creating an unwelcome British dependency on China. By the end of the century, due to establishment of British tea gardens in India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) this had been reduced to just 10%.
Indians had traditionally drunk tea from the indigenous Assam tea plant for its medicinal properties, but not as a beverage to be consumed regularly for sheer pleasure. Later, with the industrialisation of the tea industry by the British, they were able to produce tea in ever greater quantities, working long days from 6am. This led the Indian Tea Association (ITA) to encourage British owned factories, mines and cotton mills to give their Indian workers tea breaks during the working day, thus introducing the role of the tea vendor – the chawallah – into the workplace.
The Association also supported the tea vendors who worked on the railway network that was rapidly spreading across India. The original idea was for tea to be drunk in the British manner, with a splash of milk and a teaspoonful of sugar, but as is so often the case, the Indians had their own ideas and their own recipes. The tea vendors preferred to serve their tea spiced and sweet, diluted with plenty of buffalo milk. This way of drinking tea soon became the drink of choice for other Indians, much to the chagrin of the ITA, who naturally sold less tea when it was prepared this way.
The life of the tea vendor
Life is lived on the streets in India and hearing the call “chai, chai” at regular intervals is part of it. The documentary film “Masala Chai” by Marco Holster provides a moving insight into the lives of five different tea vendors from different social backgrounds.
Spices, milk & sweetener for masala chai
Most Indian masala chai recipes contain cardamom, black pepper, cinnamon, cloves and ginger. These are usually used whole, but grinding them makes for a stronger, spicier chai. The spices are strained out at a later stage.
The key to a nice, creamy masala chai is to use full-fat milk. Using the same amount of milk as tea will make a thicker, milkier tea than diluting the milk – two parts tea to one part milk. Most masala chai recipes outside India use cow’s milk, but for a dairy-free alternative try oat milk or cashew cream.
On the streets of Kolkata, white granulated sugar was the sweetener of choice, but brown sugar, stevia, honey and even maple syrup would work. However tempting it is to reduce the amount of sugar, I would advise against it as it is the sugar that balances all the spices.
Traditional Indian masala chai recipe
If you don’t have time to make chai the traditional way our sweet black tea “Maharaja Chai” and spicy “Star of India Chai” offer a quick and easy alternative. Having said that, while these teas go in the direction of chai masala, there’s nothing to beat making your own chai in the traditional way.
What you need to make traditional masala chai
- A stainless steel saucepan
- A strainer
- (optional to serve) kulhads
Ingredients (for one litre of tea)
- Milk (full fat) / water
- Strong black tea (a malty Assam or strong black tea blend e.g. Irish Breakfast Tea)
- Spices (use dried ginger or ginger powder as fresh ginger could cause the milk to curdle)
- Sugar or your choice of sweetener
Strange as it may seem, quantities are not important. Just experiment with the amount of spices you use until you find the blend that tastes good to you. Masala chai is usually 2 parts water to 1 part milk, but if you want it creamier, use a 1:1 ratio. As far as the amount of tea is concerned, if you feel that the colour of your masala chai is not dark enough when you get to the boiling stage, add another spoonful of tea leaves.
- Crush a handful of spices into smaller pieces using a pestle and mortar.
- Bring the water and spices to the boil, add 3 tablespoons (about 20 g) of black tea leaves and reduce to a simmer.
- Continue to simmer the mixture for 2 – 3 minutes, then add the milk. Allow to simmer for a further 5 minutes.
- Strain the mixture.
- “Pull” (aerate) the chai. The chaiwallahs in India do this by pouring the hot tea directly into the small cups from a great height. Please do not do this at home! Instead, use a ladle to scoop up some chai and pour it back into the pot a few times.
- As an alternative (which can get messy) to pulling the chai, do a double boil. This involves bringing the mixture to the boil on a high heat, so that the liquid rises almost to the top of the pan. Then quickly remove the pan from the heat until the liquid sinks. Repeat this step, being careful not to boil the chai over. Either method will give your masala chai an added frothiness.
- Add sweetener to taste and serve.