The Heart of India
Masala Chai – the emblem of Indian hospitality
Whether you’re in a busy restaurant, down a side street, bargaining in a shop or waiting for the bus, in one of the smartest hotels at a street stall, or simply just walking down the street, if you’re in India, no matter what time of day it is or what you’re doing, it’s always time for masala chai.
In Hindi, chai (pronounced tchai) means tea; and masala means spice mix. Masala chai is made from boiling hot tea and tasty spices. This sweet spicy tea is often made with as much milk as water and it’s very refreshing in the stifling heat of India. Masala chai is India’s much-loved national drink!
Tea appeared in India in the 17th century with the arrival of the British Empire, but didn’t become widespread until the 19th century. The English not only brought the plant with them but also the tea tradition which gradually became part of Indian culture. This is illustrated by India’s ranking as the world’s second largest producer of tea, namely in regions whose names have been given to some of the best teas we know: Darjeeling and Assam in the North, or Nilgiri in the South.
Initially reserved for exclusive English clubs, tea drinking slowly but surely spread through the country and the social classes. Cultural appropriation added local spices to the tea drinking tradition in India, which gave rise to masala chai. Nowadays, everyone in Indian drinks chai which has become the symbol of Indian hospitality. Offered to welcome newcomers it gets people chatting and is guaranteed to bring a smile!
Masala chai, not your everyday cuppa
One of the main differences comes from how it’s made. Whilst tea is made by infusing tea leaves in hot water, chai is made by decoction. This means that the masala is directly mixed with the liquid before it boils. The mix is kept on the heat then strained to remove the solids. This technique means the tea and spices mix perfectly together giving chai its amazing flavour.
Another difference comes from the milk which is added right at the start and boiled with all the other ingredients rather than being added cold when serving. You can even make chai just with milk without any water. Sugar is a key ingredient of chai which can be added at the decoction stage or when serving.
Masala chai recipes may differ slightly but most Indians will say that they always use green cardamom, cloves, ginger and cinnamon. Saffron, pepper and anise are sometimes also used. Indians generally use strong black tea as it’s not overpowered by the spices. When we asked whether there were other masala chai recipes (using cumin or turmeric for example), we were told that these spices are too powerful for tea and are kept for cooking.
As well as being the emblem of hospitality chai is also a healthy drink. Cardamom is good for digestion, cinnamon and tea are rich in natural antioxidants, ginger is good for sore throats and pepper is said to reduce the risk of cancer. As our friend Mohammed Yunus so rightly says, masala chai is a healthy mix of flavours!
So why not try your own masala chai using Sunita’s recipe:
Masala chai recipe
For 2 cups
- Heat a cup of water and a cup of milk in a saucepan over a low heat.
- Add 2 teaspoons of Terre Exotique’s chai spices (classic, digestion, or detox), 1 teaspoon of black tea, and 2 to 3 teaspoons of sugar.
- Mix and bring to the boil for about 15 minutes.
- Strain and serve.
Feel free to change the proportions of water and milk to suit your tastes. Lots of Indian tea shops only use milk.
Discover our range of chai used to make masala chai: