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What is Masala Chai tea?
Masala Chai tea, native to India and loved around the world, isn’t defined by a specific variety of tea leaf, a particular cultivation or processing technique, or even a preferred method of consumption. It is only tied to the refreshing fragrance and flavor of tea leaves, and the warming aroma of herbs and spices. In fact, that is what ‘Masala Chai’ translates to – ‘spiced tea’. A fragrant, invigorating blend of tea (traditionally Assam tea) and spices including cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and ginger, it is consumed in practically every Indian household and has built a fan base in other parts of the world as well.
A cultural constant
In India – the land of Ayurveda – spiced tea historically held the position of an herbal medicine. Tea plants grew wild in the northeastern hills of India (Assam, Darjeeling, etc.). In the 19th century, the British East India Company noticed the region’s potential for tea cultivation. Over the following decades, tea (and black tea in particular) evolved into a daily beverage for Indian families. Since then, it has rooted itself in popular culture and lent itself to a variety of spiced, milk-based preparations.
Traditionally, Masala Chai tea was prepared by boiling loose Assam tea leaves, green cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks, ground ginger, cloves and black peppercorn with substantial amounts of milk. Besides the usual black tea bases (Assam, Niligiri, and Ceylon tea), one can now find Masala Chai variants made with green tea or caffeine-free rooibos. Ever since it found a global audience, Masala Chai has also broadened its horizons by lending itself to new floral additives, such as rose petals and jasmine or lavender blossoms. Tea brands and sellers around the world package their special Masala Chais as dry loose leaf blends, tea bags, and even instant mix powders and concentrates.
Masala Chai’s caffeine-rich black tea base, together with its spices and herbs, results in a warming, invigorating, “fairly potent” and “full bodied” brew. The decoction method of preparation (boiling the chai with a generous amount of milk) makes a “spicy yet smooth” cup, “perfect for chilly winter mornings”. If your batch of Masala Chai has an Assam tea base, you can expect a “hazy amber liquor” with a “malty” taste and a “spicy kick in the back of the throat after each swallow”. The aroma of spices often stand out when dry, but get more “balanced” once you steep the tea. Considered “wonderfully strong” by high caffeine tea drinkers, this is a “good pick-me-up” for cold mornings or slow afternoons. Those who prefer a more subtle sip, however, can find the flavor “too intense”.
Masala Chai is best enjoyed with milk and sugar, the smoothness of the former and the sweetness of the latter complementing the strong tea base and aromatic spices well. If you’d rather not use milk, steep it for about 5 minutes in boiling water. It is important to note, however, that every batch of Masala Chai has its own unique composition of ingredients, and as such, its own prescribed steeping instructions. To preserve the flavor of your Masala Chai, make sure you store it in an airtight container.