What Madhur Jaffrey Wants You to Know About Masala Chai

November 13, 2015

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. 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.

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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.

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Top Comment:
“Here's my lazy-girl chai: add a clove or two and a cardamom pod or two to my cup, tea bag (I'm currently working my way thru the royal wedding memorial tea tin I got as a joke and which contains a surprisingly good English Breakfast) add boiling water and steep, remove the tea bag and enjoy. Sometimes at the end of the cup I chew on the cloves for an hour or so - they taste divine. ”
— cbforesman

“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:

Photo by James Ransom
Photo by 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!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Joseph Kadlec
    Joseph Kadlec
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    Rashda Khan
  • chris
  • GingerToastedSesame
  • Sonia
I used to work at Food52. I'm probably the person who picked all of the cookie dough out of the cookie dough ice cream.


Joseph K. November 4, 2018
I have made this formula I believe four times now all with 1℅ shelf stable milk. I have found it a consistently light, in the laudable sense, "celestial", cosmopolitan tea preparation.
Rashda K. July 3, 2018
My Mom always uses fresh ginger (smashed with a pestle) to her morning tea and it adds a nice bit of zing. :)
chris July 27, 2016
I'm guessing that three black tea bags would yield about 2.5 teaspoons of loose tea? (Yes, or to taste!)
GingerToastedSesame January 10, 2016
I just made this for an afternoon pick me up and it was delicious. I only had 1% milk so I'm going to try it again with whole milk as she suggested because I think it'll definitely make it creamier in texture. I think I'm also going to add more spices because I like a spicier chai. Great to learn the technique! It's easy and worth the effort :)
Sonia November 28, 2015
I have never steeped tea in the water for more than 2 minutes before adding milk. My dad always warned me that anymore would not be good for health. Also, to all the spices mention above, add some lemongrass. I have that sometimes and it tastes delicious!
cbforesman November 24, 2015
Love this thread. Here's my lazy-girl chai: add a clove or two and a cardamom pod or two to my cup, tea bag (I'm currently working my way thru the royal wedding memorial tea tin I got as a joke and which contains a surprisingly good English Breakfast) add boiling water and steep, remove the tea bag and enjoy. Sometimes at the end of the cup I chew on the cloves for an hour or so - they taste divine.
witloof November 20, 2015
This looks wonderful. I adore chai and have never been able to replicate its taste {I usually indulge at a Pakistani takeout place in Soho that caters to taxi drivers} at home. My Indian neighbor makes it for me sometimes but won't tell me how she does it!
Saba November 17, 2015
Typo alert: "Labeled" where it should be "Ladled." Thank you.
Coloradorobyn November 17, 2015
If you store your fresh ginger in the freezer, it won't be likely to curdle the milk.
Tripti P. November 17, 2015
Sometimes I also add 1/2 tsp of fennel seeds (saunf). :)
Binky November 17, 2015
I love putting a small bay leaf in my version with a handful of rosebuds.
mcs3000 November 17, 2015
love this post.
laurenlocally November 16, 2015
Just purchased my first cardamom pods. So excited for them to arrive!
HalfPint November 16, 2015
I love Masala Chai and was spending a FORTUNE on my morning cuppa ($4 for 12 oz, it adds up) from a chai cart, but no fancy-pants coffee shop in the SF Financial district makes it as good as this little chai cart on Market Street. Truth be told, I think that use those overly-sweet, and vastly inferior, chai concentrate from a certain carton and charging just as much.
Nomaste November 16, 2015
This is so cool. Madhur is not only a fantastic personality she's a true passionate cook. I love the fact that she has no real set notions about how a single recipe must be made. She ensures that it captures the essence of the dish and makes the reader feel at ease about trying it by weaving in some flexibility into the process.

My dad is my tea idol. For years he's been making his morning tea (a ritual that can't be shaken even by a giant earthquake) by combining loose tea as well as a bagged product. He never drinks masala chai. Just chai and adds a few drops of milk and never lets his tea seep too long in the water. Only 2-4 minutes at the most. The result is magic. The tea before adding milk looks resembles in color like a beautiful ale or dark whiskey. And the add the milk and the cloudy storm erupts inside the warm cup leading up to a delicious calm.
Hopefully I can recreate this one day on my blog.
Nice story Food52.
Hannah K. November 15, 2015
Thanks for this article! I love chai and have been finding the flavor of packaged chai teas all over the map. The basic spices here suit my palate, and I'm experimenting with spice proportions. I usually decrease the number of tea bags when making a pot of tea b/c I find the one to one ratio a little too bitter. One more staple to add to my "made at home" list!
Edlyn November 15, 2015
Thank you for saying all of the above, Madhur Jaffery!!
Devangi R. November 13, 2015
I love chai , my day begins with it. Sometimes, I make it with grated fresh ginger and mint leaves or cardamom. Fresh Mint leaves also give a nice flavor.