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Ask a Chai Wallah

Welcome to Ask a Chai Wallah! The Masala Chai Wallah (a.k.a. Patrick), our resident chai wallah and Chaiyurveda scholar, is eager to lend a helping ladle and answer your spicy chai-making questions.

Email your inquiries to chaipilgrimage@gmail.com.

If you want good karma, make good chai. – The Masala Chai Wallah

Frequently Asked Questions:

What spices should I use?
How long should I simmer the spices?
What if the spices taste weak in the cup?
What type of tea should I use?
How much tea should I use?
Do I simmer the tea or steep it, and for how long?
How much milk should I use?
Should I boil the milk?
How much sweetener do I use?
What is the best method for brewing masala chai?

Debra from Evanston, IL asks …
There is a particular flavor that I have tasted in many chais that I finally figured out is star anise. I noticed that you do not mention star anise as one of the chai spices on your spice page. Why not? I love the taste! Do you know about it? How much should I put in my chai if I make my own?

Masala Chai Wallah: One cannot help but notice the unique taste of star anise in a masala chai. Many of the commercial chais add it to their brew and I have tasted it in the chai at some Indian restaurants in the U.S.  Although we did not include it in our chai spice section, I did develop a recipe that features star anise in our book called Cinnamon Star Chai. To me, the flavor of star anise is a bit overriding, so I matched it with other heavyweight spices like cinnamon, black pepper and clove, and added a lot of milk to buffer the intensity. It was a challenge for me to use star anise, which I seldom use, and leave out my favorite spices: ginger and cardamom. After much trial and error however, the Cinnamon Star Chai recipe is one that, surprisingly, I love! When using star anise, I would suggest starting with one star, crushing it thoroughly, and simmering it with other spices.

Surya from LA asks…
I am from Nepal studying in the U.S. I love chai but as a college student I don't have time or means to prepare a good masala chai. I am limited to tea bag, black pepper, cinnamon, milk, and sugar. Can you offer any advice on making my chai experience better? Do you have any fast and easy but delicious recipe?

Masala Chai Wallah: Namaste Surya! I have fond memories of homemade Nepali chiyaa (chai in Nepali) with cinnamon and black pepper! Although i think preparing chai with fresh-ground spices each time is ideal, when time is limited, a powdered chai masala is a convenient option. I added our Spice Wallah Chai Masala recipe to our chai recipe page. You can adjust this recipe to your liking and make your own masala. When i’m in a hurry, I just sprinkle some chai masala on my to-go mug tea, stir it up, and head out the door!

Shannon from Oregon asks…
I've had chai that was made using vanilla and blackstrap molasses. I want to experiment incorporating those two ingredients and was wondering if you had any advise for me? When/how to add the molasses or vanilla bean verses vanilla extract?  I'm now on a mission to learn all I can about how to make chai and it's in part thanks to you!

Masala Chai Wallah: We also enjoy the rich molasses taste in our chai that we get from using Sucanat, a type of evaporated cane juice, that we use in our chai. Molasses, however, I have never used. I would suggest using a two-pot method to prepare your chai. In one pot, simmer the masala of spices you are using in water. In another larger pot, add the milk and heat it up. When the milk is about to come to a boil, add the molasses and stir it in, then let it heat up again and turn off the heat just as it starts to simmer. (If you throw a few strands of saffron in the milk at the beginning, it will bring your chai into another world). As far as the vanilla goes, fresh bean is best and a little goes a long way. I am not sure how much chai you are making, but I would start with 1/2–1 inch of vanilla bean, if it is soft and fresh, chop it up into small pieces, and add it to the masala (the spices and water) at the very beginning. If you are using extract, it may be better to add it at the end, as an alcohol extract may evaporate a bit with boiling.

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What spices should I use?
In India, we drank some wonderful adrak chai (ginger chai) and elaichi chai (cardamom chai) that each paid tribute to a single spice. Both were delicious. One, the other, or a combination of the two spices serves to create a classic masala chai. And still, there is a cornucopia of exquisite spices just waiting to dance on your tongue! I prefer to use one or two spices for the primary spicing, then perhaps a few more as supporting spices. Ginger, cardamom, Ceylon cinnamon, fennel and saffron are my personal favorites. A touch of tulsi, allspice, pepper, nutmeg or clove can be used to shape a more striking brew. Star anise, bay leaf, vanilla, mint, coriander, rose petals, licorice root, orange peel or any other culinary or medicinal herb or spice you savor can be experimented with to create your own unique brew. To me, what marks the perfect cup of masala chai is when you can distinguish each individual spice on the palate, while at the same time, the spices blend into one synergistic flavor that is beyond words.

How long should I simmer the spices?
This is really a matter of personal taste as well as experience with how the various spices respond to simmering. I find that 10 to 15 minutes is usually sufficient to release the flavor from most freshly ground spices. Some chai wallahs will allow their masala to boil down for hours think- ing the flavor will continue to expand with longer simmering. But some spices, like cardamom, will lose flavorful essential oils if over-brewed. And others, like cinnamon, become overbearing and flat tasting if boiled for a long time. Follow your taste buds.

What if the spices taste weak in the cup?
Next time use more spices or brew longer. Try adding more sweetener to lift up the spices if it is not too sweet already. If you like ginger, grate some and squeeze the fresh juice into the pot or into each cup. You can also have a powdered chai masala on hand to sprinkle on top (see Spice Wallah Chai Masala recipe on page 120 of Chai Pilgrimage).

What type of tea should I use?
CTC (crush, tear, curl) tea is the traditional type of black tea used to make chai in India. It produces a strong, dark brew that stands up to the milk and spices in a masala chai. CTC is the granular tea found in most black tea bags and is available by the pound at Indian grocers. One can also use a high-grade orthodox black tea, green tea or any type of tea they wish.

How much tea should I use?
Again, this is a matter of preference. A guideline of one teaspoon of tea leaves per one cup (eight ounces) of water is generally recommended. This is a good ratio for a full-leaf orthodox Indian black tea. When using CTC tea, this amount will give you a strong, Indian-style tea. But again, in India they drink much smaller portions. So one must factor in how much chai they enjoy in a sitting and how stimulated they would like to be. My favorite teacup holds two cups (16 ounces). Personally, I enjoy drinking a couple of teacups of masala chai in the morning, but I do not like being over-caffeinated. Therefore, I often brew a relatively weak cup of chai so that I can enjoy more of it, using approximately one-half teaspoon CTC or one teaspoon orthodox whole-leaf tea per eight-ounce cup. If you’d rather have a decaf, or “chai-less” chai, simply leave the tea leaves out altogether.

Do I simmer the tea or steep it, and for how long?
Traditionally, the tea on the streets of India is boiled. This is directly contrary to what most tea manufacturers suggest. They recommend steeping Indian black tea for three to five minutes in boiling water (100C, or 212F). When using high-quality tea leaves or Darjeeling tea, a temperature just below boiling and a shorter steep time may be preferred. If one desires a milder tea, use less tea and steep for less time. For a stronger tea, use more tea leaves and steep the full five minutes. When tea is steeped too long, it becomes extremely bitter. This is especially true of CTC or broken-leaf grades that steep quickly. When making masala chai, I usually brew the spice masala, turn off the heat, add the tea leaves, and steep for the desired time. Using a timer helps to prevent over-steeping.

How much milk should I use?
If you are using full-fat cow’s milk, anywhere from a 1:1 to 1:5 ratio of milk to water is good, depending, of course, on how milky you like it. The milk helps cut the intensity of the hot spices and the bitterness of the tea. Plant-based milks, like rice or almond, are generally thinner, so more will be needed. For these milks, a 1:1 ratio usually works well.

Should I boil the milk?
Simmering the milk brings out its inherent sweetness and makes it more digestible. In India, in areas where refrigeration is less common, the fresh raw milk is usually boiled when it first arrives for pasteurization and is used soon after. Whether we use raw or store-bought milk, we usually bring it just to a simmer then add the sweetener and bring it again to a momentary simmer while stirring.

How much sweetener do I use?
The sweetener is important to draw out the flavor of the spices, but with too much sweetener, your chai will end up tasting like the milk on the bottom of your cereal bowl. We find it best to start with a little less than what you think you will need. The sweetness level is the one factor you can easily adjust upward after you are finished. You can also allow your guest to add more, if desired, in his or her own cup.

What is the best method for brewing masala chai?
There are an endless number of ways to prepare masala chai. Every aspect of preparation, from which ingredients to add first to how long to brew, varies from chai wallah to chai wallah. Here are two methods:

One-Pot Method
Simmer spices in water • Add milk, sugar (and tea) • Bring to a simmer again, turn off heat • Cover and steep (or add tea now and steep) • Strain into teapot or cups and serve.

Two-Pot Method
In one pot, simmer spices • In another, larger pot, heat milk and sugar • Turn off heat to spice water, add tea, steep • Strain spice and tea water into hot, sweet milk • Stir and serve.