Our friend Rita says that when her mother was entertaining prospective suitors in India in the early 1970s, her weak chai skills weren't winning her any admirers. In those days, Rita says, the potential groom's family would visit the potential bride's family and it was custom for the young woman to make chai for everyone. When she brought the chai out, it might be the first time the two laid eyes on each other.
Rita's mother's chai was apparently "horrific," but her father was pretty progressive and they ended up marrying anyway. Masala chai is a very loose style of making sweetened, spiced tea with milk that varies by region, family and individual. "Chai" simply means tea and has some interesting etymological roots reaching back to Mandarin, while "masala" means spice mixture.
Rita visited recently and shared some tips for making some very delicious chai. It may be my new favorite hot beverage.
Serves as many as you want
Indian black tea (either 1 teabag per person or 1 teaspoon of loose leaf tea)
spices (we used 3 cardamom pods and 2 cloves, Rita also recommends fresh ginger)
sugar (we used 1 heaping tablespoon per person, but this depends on how sweet you want it)
milk (we used regular milk, but Rita says it's best with evaporated milk)
Using the cup you'll serve your chai in as a measuring cup, pour one cup per person plus one into a pot and bring to a boil.
While the water is coming to a boil, grind your spices. I was excited to use my mortar and pestle for the first time, but you could also use a rolling pin and a cutting board to break down your spices a little bit. Add the spices to the water even before it comes to a boil.
Once the water is boiling, add your loose leaf tea or tea bags and let the water continue to boil for another two minutes, depending on how strong you want your tea.
Now add your sugar, give the mixture a good stir and wait another minute or so. Then slowly add the milk. This is where things get especially fuzzy, because you're just supposed to add milk until it's as pale or as dark as you'd like. Think milky tea or milky coffee and head in that direction. You might have to make this a few times to find your own sweet spot.
Adding the milk will cool down the mixture, but let it come back to a boil and stay there for about 2 minutes more.
Your chai is ready to enjoy now! We didn't have any way to filter out the spices and tea, so we just let everything settle to the bottom and then ladled the chai into individual mugs.
Rita's family is Punjabi and from North India. Her mother says that in that region chai is traditionally spiced with cardamom, ginger and fennel seeds, but no cloves. You can make your chai with whichever spices you like and have around, although Rita warns that many people go a bit overboard with the spices and that three is probably enough.