The image above is a “cheat sheet” on making your own chai. Chai means tea so chai tea is a redundancy. It is also not a specific type of tea but just a way of using any tea — usually a strong black especially Assam as the base for a combination of spices, herbs, sweeteners and milk, both dairy and non-dairy.
So make your own. The Indian home tradition — grandma’s own recipe — largely relies on starting with milk and boiling it, adding the other ingredients. Masala chai is the classic. It’s increasingly popular across the world, with almost infinite varieties but is as much the national drink of India as black tea has been in the Britain. It’s sold in street cafes and by walking tea wallahs in every city, flamboyantly pouring the brew from arm raised high.
Here is the typical ingredient label for a mid-range masala chai:
- Black tea [the standard is Assam “ground tea” but premium masala chais use high grade whole leaf]
- Cardamom [the essential chai spice, with green cardamom pods the best, black cardamom a complement and flavor extension, and white cardamom a low grade reminder that all agricultural goods are the targets for processed cheap mass market varieties]
- Cinnamon [stick and twig, not powder; it’s the inner bark from a tree and the rolled “quills” provide a more pungent sweet taste that the standard US powder, which is from the related cassia plant],
- Ginger, clove and black peppercorn.
Chai lattes: be very, very wary
Essentially, chai lattes are a tea espresso targeted at offering coffee lovers a lower caffeine dessert treat and tea drinkers a decidedly non-bland palate-teaser. Many people love them and they are a skillful combination of marketing and flavor attack. Chai suggests something exotic and latte signals creamy and sweet.
Packaged chai lattes deserve a special place all of their own for me: your kitchen trash can. They should travel from hand to bin in approximately 16 milliseconds. The Go Throw alert is the ingredient list: “Sugar 45 grams” per cup. That is 10 teaspoons. Most chai lattes are not tea, not chai, not healthy, not fresh, and not the high grade “natural” product they are marketed as.
Chai latte appears to have become a label for “whatever.” Many served in coffee outlets are pre-brewed concentrates that are heavily pre-sweetened and like instant tea in contrast to even tea bags, let alone whole leaf tea. Here is the typical ingredient list, from a leading firm that specializes in concentrates to be used in a brewing machine: sugar, dried whole milk, instant black tea, natural flavvor, maltodextrin, salt and stevia sweetener.
In the middle of that list is the dread item “natural flavor.” It means found somewhere in nature; sand is a legal natural additive. Some processed cheese contains “added natural fiber”, which sounds OK-ish, in the form of powdered wood pulp – which doesn’t quite have the same resonance; but it is “natural.” If you see “natural” pop up in a tea ingredient list, think wood shavings.
Ironically, many of the worst offenders in this packaged chemistry chai latte market are coffee, grocery and tea brands respected for quality, organic produce, Fair Trade sourcing, and other virtues of the premium trade. This piece of poetry is from… well, let’s leave it anonymous; the comments in parentheses highlight the differences between this chai X and X chai: chai latte in contrast to masala chai, the Indian classic style.
- Sugar [processed white, doesn’t add to the spice flavor dance but speeds the path to diabetes]
- Nonfat milk [the worst for bringing out the flavor of spices but at least it’s not the frequent non-dairy creamer]
- Black tea [powdered generic]
- Spice blend: nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, ginger, clove, cardamom, [“blend” means ground up and mushed together – so much for the wonderful oils and aromatics of cracked cardamom pods]
- Natural flavor: organic maltodextrin corn, silicon dioxide [silicon is indeed natural but this compound is just an anti-caking agent]; honey: sucrose, honey [honey-ish with extra sugar added]; sodium caseinate [used in paint, glue, protein supplements and plastics]; salt; guar gum; vegetable mono and diglycerides; carrageenan gum.
Making your own chai
Chai has four building blocks: the base tea, spices, milk and sweetener. Which one(s) do you want to bring to the forefront of taste and aroma, or downplay? Indian masala chai and home recipes are very much milk-based and chai lattes sweetener-based. You don’t have to include either and if you want to there are many options.
The tea component of masala chai has historically been Assam CTC – The Cut, Tear and Curl machine-formed pellets that comprise 85% of production and that opened up the domestic tea market. CTC is far cheaper than hand-plucked and artisan-treated “orthodox” tea.
It is also an ideal base for chai. It stands up well to sugar and milk, is full and malty and brews its ingredients smoothly at a slightly lower temperature than for plain Assam leaf or Assam-based blends. Specialty chais are increasingly using high grade whole leaf Assam: look for ones with FTG in the label – Flowery Tippy Golden. Is this really better than the CTC BOP – B for Broken? Your choice. If you are adding plenty of sweetener and milk, then probably not. The extra subtleties and aromatic complexity of the whole leaf gets lost.
For the classic plain tea drinker, it is worth trying a slightly superior whole leaf. Blenders are using Nilgiri black, Darjeeling oolong and even green and white tea. Many of these are iffy. Vegetal greens don’t go well with most spices and get layered with too much sweetener. That said, the complexity and slight fullness of Indian oolongs makes for some excellent chais.
So, go with Assam CTC or BOP and experiment with other leaf. Ceylon CTC is a fine alternative. Both provide body and “mouthfeel.”
Spices are what chais are all about, just as flavored teas are built on fruit peel and zest, floral petals and herb ingredients. The core spice set is:
- Green cardamom: the dominant chai flavor component, so make sure it’s top quality. It’s one of the most expensive of all and seeds, powder and white cardamom are widely used as cheap substitutes (white is second grade green bleached with hydrogen peroxide). The roasted green pods provide pungent sweetness and an aromatic flavor that don’t overwhelm the tea. Black cardamom is not truly cardamom but a botanical relative. Its small seeds add a smoky and peppery flavor.
- Cinnamon is pungent and sweet and may obviate the need for heavy sugaring. It’s made from the inner bark on trees and formed into the well-known cinnamon stick. The best comes from Sri Lanka but most of what is sold in the US is made from the cassia tree and is not as firy.
- Cloves add a pleasant bite to the tea that can offset the softness of the cardamom. A little goes a long way.
- Ginger provides a sweet hit. Slices of its fresh root are much, much more flavorful than powdered or crystalized ginger.
- Black peppercorns are both warming and a surprisingly compatible addition to the mix.
The art of the chai blender is to modulate these very distinct and strong ingredients so they stand out but complement each other. There are a number of other used more selectively than this base of five; fennel for a light liquorice, saffron, the world’s most costly spice, for its pervasive and delicate aroma, star anise for a stronger aniseed than that of fennel, nutmeg and mace for a spicy pepper taste that also has the penetrating softness of cinnamon. Occasionally, vanilla bean, lemon, almonds, bishop’s weed, holy basil, almonds and bay leaf may be added. Chocolate is a surprisingly subtle and pleasant extra boots to a full-spice chai.
The foundation of chai is the spice experience. Make it a good one. In buying spices, keep away from the overpriced grocery ground spices and ones in bottles and tins. The same with buying packaged chais and concentrates. Too many mass market spices are irradiated — passed through giant machines that expose them to x-rays, gamma rays and electron beams to reduce the risks of insect contamination, bacteria and other contaminants. The spices sold by specialty stores are safe. The irradiation kills off e-coli and the like, which are risks but low probability ones. It also kills the taste. Try sawdust instead; it will be as flavorful and cost less.
For many Indian drinkers for whom masala chai is as embedded in the culture and perhaps even DNA as peanut butter and jelly is in the US, the creaminess, caramel tinge and softness of milk is an essential element of chai. What complicates the issue is that what “milk” covers is not just cow’s milk. Buffalo milk is the foundation of the Indian chai tradition, and the old British tradition of evaporated and condensed milk lives on in parts of India and in Hong Kong.
Cow’s milk is the general choice, for its richness. Low-fat skimmed milk is a poor option, as are the edible plaster of paris dairy creamer powders. This is a matter of chemistry. The molecules of the aromatic oils bind best with the fatty ones of milk. It’s something to do with benzene rings.
Instead of milk, try adding a dribble of rich cream. That enhances the fullness of the heavy and plainest Assam chais, Bombay Cutter, Kolkata Street spice and Punjabi Masala. But the milk is a choice not a requirement. Omitting it suits the tastes of many drinkers of fine teas who want the astringency and bite of the tea to dominate.
Most chai drinkers add sweeteners. Chai latte lovers are getting a sugar overload. Some heavy chais do seem to need at least a little offsetting sweetening, though those that contain plenty of cinnamon and ginger are naturally sweetish.
Make sure that what you add matches the quality of the spices. Honey is by far the best, especially clover honey. Honey relies on its flower source: orange blossoms, lavender, rosemary and other herbs. It is a marvelous blend of subtle richness and lightness. There really is no clearly better sweetener. Brown sugar, maple syrup, cane sugar and other rich unrefined additions to chai preserve its natural and piquant flavors without overpowering the tea. By contrast, artificial low calorie flavorings add a bitter sharpness, and white sugar is empty calories and very unhealthy. Again, your choice.