It’s freezing outside again this morning and you know those days, when you are chilled to the core and nothing seems to warm you through? That’s when I like to make Masala Chai, the warming, nurturing spices peel through the layers of cold and heat from within. Before we learn about the origins of Chai, I just want to say that the combinations of Kahra or Chai spices are not exhaustive, experiment. We all know about the healing properties of spices to do a little research and make up your own special brew.
Tea plants have grown wild in the Assam region for centuries and at that time most of the population viewed tea as a herbal medicine rather than as a recreational drink. Some of the chai masala spice combinations, or Karha, which are used today are derived from Ayurvedic medical texts.
In the 1830s, the British East India Company became concerned about the huge consumption of tea in the United Kingdom which had originated from China. This is equated to some one pound of tea per person. Then British ex pats noticed the existence of the Assamese tea plants, and began to cultivate tea plantations locally. By 1870, over 90% of the tea consumed in Great Britain was still from China, however, by 1900 this had dropped to 10%, and nearly all replaced by tea grown in British India (50%) and British Ceylon (33%).
The consumption of black tea within India was still relatively low until the launch of a large promotional campaign by the Indian Tea Association in the early 20th century, which encouraged factories, mines, and textile mills to provide tea breaks for their workers. It also supported many independent chai wallahs who populated the growing railway system.
The official promotion of tea was as served in the English mode, with small added amounts of milk and sugar. The Indian Tea Association initially disapproved of independent vendors’ tendency to add spices and greatly increase the proportions of milk and sugar, thus reducing their need for tea leaves per liquid volume. However, masala chai in its present form has now firmly established itself as a popular drink, not just outlasting the British Raj but spreading beyond India to the rest of the world.
Components of Chai
There is no fixed recipe or preparation method for masala chai and many families have their own versions of the tea. Most chai contains caffeine typically 1/3 that of coffee (if made with a black tea base). The tea leaves steep in the hot water long enough to extract intense flavour, ideally without releasing the bitter tannins. Because of the large range of possible variations, masala chai can be considered a class of tea rather than a specific kind. However, all masala chai has the following four basic elements: Tea, spices, milk and sugar.
For the Karha ( chai spices)
- A baton of un-peeled ginger
- 2 Cardamom pods
- 1 star anise
- 3 black peppercorns
- A pinch of fennel seeds
- A pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
- 3 whole cloves
- Half a stick of cinnamon
- A pinch of coriander seeds
- 2 Assam ( or black tea) tea bags
- 1/2 pint of homemade almond milk
- Coconut sugar or agave syrup to taste
There are two ways of doing this. The first is to place all the chai spices into a piece of muslin, tie and drop into the heating almond milk and tea mixture. The second is to simply add the spices with the tea bags to a milk pan, pour over the milk and heat. Once the spices have been infused to your taste, remove the bag or simply strain the infused tea through a fine sieve. Pour into mugs and sweeten with either coconut sugar or agave syrup according to taste.