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What Madhur Jaffrey Wants You to Know About Masala Chai

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If there’s one thing Madhur Jaffrey wants you to know, it’s this: In India, “chai” just means tea. Ordinary tea. While many of us associate chai with a sweet, milky, heavily-spiced beverage, for an Indian this would be “masala chai” or “masala tea” (“masala” meaning spices).

(And if there’s a second thing she wants you to know, it’s that we in the U.S. should be using beans in many, many more ways than we are currently—but let’s save that discussion for another article—and her new book.)

Ali being a very good student.
Ali being a very good student. Photo by James Ransom

The spice mixes that flavor masala chai change from family to family, depending on religion, on city, on grandmother. The tea itself varies, too, a product of where it’s grown, what particular hill it comes from, who owns the tea plantation, how long it fermented. Jaffrey uses bags of P.G. Tips (because it’s one of the few good decaffeinated teas), but in India, it’s always made with loose tea—usually the cheapest and most powdery. At truck stops in the North, where it’s ladled from a big pot and served with a stuffed paratha, you’ll find that it’s sweet and creamy; at fancier venues, the drink will be less sugary and creamy.

Photo by James Ransom

So there's no one way to make masala chai—even for Madhur Jaffrey. At 9:00 A.M. on the morning she was scheduled to come into the office to teach us how to make it ourselves, she phoned editor Ali Slagle: Her own recipe had changed.

While the original recipe called for ground spices, she preferred using whole spices and less milk. “I did it this morning to try it out and it was perfect,” said Jaffrey.

“What happens with recipes is that you write them, and within one year, you’re cooking a different way. Now I’m making it this way and it’s easier." With this freedom to diverge from a recipe, granted by a prolific cookbook writer who puts her total count at 20 (her latest is Vegetarian India) because she's not sure of the exact number, you can go forth and make your own masala chai.

More: The beginners guide to Jaffrey's Vegetarian India.

Here's how:

Photos by James Ransom, James Ransom

1) First, add 3 cups of water to a medium saucepan.

2) Next throw in the masala:
- 4 cloves (but "one more or one less makes no difference")
- 4 cardamom pods (use green cardamom, which has a “more silvery taste,” as opposed to the deeper and coarser black cardamom)
- 4 peppercorns
- A 1-inch piece of cinnamon bark (which you can substitute for cinnamon stick but has a deeper and “more masculine” flavor)
- 1/4 teaspoon of ground ginger (she would never use fresh, which might curdle the milk)

"I made up my chai mixture," says Jaffrey. "You can leave out any of these things—but never cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, or ginger." In summary, feel free to take or leave the peppercorns.

While Jaffrey throws the spices directly into the water, you can also satchel them in a tea bag for easy clean-up—as long as it's loose: "If the spices are loose, they give off more than when they’re tight. Make a loose bag if you’re going to make a bag at all," she says.

Photo by James Ransom

3) Add 3 black tea bags and bring the water to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer for 10 minutes. Don't worry too much about over-steeping your tea—you can add more water, sugar, or milk be that the case.

4) Once the tea and spices have simmered for 10 minutes, add milk (Jaffrey uses 1 cup whole milk, though her original recipe calls for 2). While Jaffrey does not use non-dairy milk, she doesn't see why you couldn't (though keep in mind that different milks might react differently to boiling, so you might want to add it at the end).

Sweeten with sugar (Jaffrey uses 4 teaspoons of sugar, but sweeten to taste); masala chai is always made with white sugar in India, but you could use a different sweetener—even honey. (If you do use honey, you'll want to avoid boiling it; add it to your tea just before serving.)

Photo by James Ransom

5) Bring to a simmer, then take the pot off the heat and pour it through a fine mesh strainer into mugs or a serving vessel.

Taste the masala chai to see if it's as sweet and creamy as you'd like; while you can adjust at the milk and sugar as much as you'd like, there's nothing you can really do about spices at this point. So make a note of what you liked and disliked for your next batch.

Photo by James Ransom

Jaffrey takes her tea scalding hot and recommends warming any mugs or pitchers in advance by running them under hot water. "I would never drink it cold because a skin forms on the top that is not very nice. Even in the heat, we drink masala chai hot in India."

Photo by James Ransom

6) Discard the spices and the tea, no matter how frugal you are. “They’ve given what they’ve got,” Jaffrey instructs.

And that's it: No fancy ingredients or special equipment—the secret may just be to make sure to simmer for long enough. But who knows: If we asked Jaffrey how she makes chai in a decade, the story might be different.

How do you spice your masala chai? Chai-me in in the comments below!

Tags: Indian, Tea, Alcohol-Free Drinks, Tips & Techniques, Books