Episode 12: Masala Chai

from Don the Apron

from Don the Apron

I love a hard-worn list. My favorite is the list you keep adding to, that chronicles your ambitions and actions and tells you the kind of person you are. You need two columns: a To-Do on the left and an italicized Done on the right. The best are the horizontal black lines bisecting items well finished, the copy-and-paste shift from left to right on an Excel sheet. Do you ever write down tasks you’ve already completed just to strike them out? I confess I’ve done that, on bad days, when I feel I’m not getting enough things done. I need that mental kick-start to tackle bigger items abandoned on the left.

Making chai has been on the left for weeks. Not because it’s difficult – it’s actually extremely easy. But I had been craving a very specific chai, the kind my grandmother used to make in New Delhi – sweet, fragrant, spicy, sinus clearing, that harks back to sticky heat and loud fans and cotton quilts. I needed green cardamom pods, not available whole at Whole Foods. Finally I resorted to Amazon Prime. Two days later, I was ready.


All teas come from the Camellia sinensis plant, a sub-tropical evergreen native to Asia. The plant grows the best in loose, deep soil, and at high altitudes.

Leaves are plucked and laid out to wilt for several hours to soften. Then they are rolled, pressed and twisted to break open the cell walls. Enzymes and essential oils are exposed to oxygen, which turns leaves reddish-brown and changes their chemical composition, creating new and complex flavors. Leaves are then dried out completely to end the oxidation process, and packaged for consumption.

Smashed green cardamom, cloves, black peppercorn, cinnamon

Smashed green cardamom, cloves, black peppercorn, cinnamon


We can largely blame the existence of Indian tea culture on the British. Tea grew in Assam for centuries, but it was drunk only as medicine.

In the early 1800s, the British East India Company schemed up a plan to develop tea in India to displace China’s monopoly on tea production and feed British demand. The BEIC had been commissioned by the English Queen to pursue trade with the Orient, rising to account for half of the world’s trade and dominating in commodities such as cotton, silk, salt, and opium. The Company also ruled India at the beginning of the British Empire.

In the 1820s, the BEIC took Assam from local rulers and through indentured servitude began tea production. Fifty years later, Assam surpassed China in tea production. Yet consumption within India remained thin until the India Tea Association (British-run) promoted and subsidized tea breaks at factories, mills and mines. Eventually tea became an addiction, and local chaiwallas, or streetside tea vendors, set up and added spices and more milk and sugar to appeal to an Indian palate. Today India is the second largest tea producer, noted for its Assam and Darjeeling strains, and Indians drink half of a cup daily on average. India’s current Prime Minister Narenda Modi is a former chaiwalla who served tea outside his father’s grocery stores.

There are many variations of tea in India depending on region. In Hindi-speaking north India where my family is from, masala chai is very popular.


Bring whole milk and water to a boil with green cardamom, fresh ginger, black peppercorns, and cinnamon. Don’t use more than a tablespoon of spices for two cups – you may regret it. Let simmer on low heat for 10 minutes. Add loose tea or tea bags and bring to a boil, then let simmer again for 5 minutes. Add a few sugar lumps – don’t you dare add Splenda. Strain and serve yourself in your favorite mug.

In India, we’d have it with buffalo milk.



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