Masala chai is a spiced milk tea that originates from India. It is made using four basic ingredients: tea, milk, sweetener, and spices. There are no standard recipes for this tea as each person makes it according to his or her taste. The ingredient proportions are variable, as are the selection of spices chosen. Many Indian families develop their own signature chai based on what they prefer.
The four main ingredients can be any number of choices and substitutions. Most masala chai is made with green or black tea leaves, although in some areas, enthusiasts prefer gunpowder tea — tea leaves rolled into little balls. For the milk, cow’s milk is the predominant choice. Buffalo or goat milk are sometimes used in areas where they are available locally. Many chai drinkers like to use sweetened condensed milk, preferring the creamy texture and additional sweetness it adds.
Sugar, either refined or unrefined, is one choice of sweetener, although some people prefer honey. The greatest variance in masala chai is in the selection of spices. At first, tea drinkers used spices that were native to the region or easily obtainable. These included cinnamon, cloves, and green cardamom. Depending on the area, the tea could contain the additional flavors of ginger, nutmeg, or pepper.
As the tea became popular in the Western world, new fans added other ingredients such as almonds and saffron to the spice options. Depending on individual taste, people make the tea with only a couple spices or a combination of several. Traditionally, the tea contains whole or coarsely ground spices rather than spice powders. This makes it easier to strain out the spices from the finished brew. Custom blends of teas and spices are now available in convenient premade tea bags; the drawback to these formulas is the lack of choice of individual spices.
Personal preference dictates the masala chai brewing process. Some people prefer to pour all the ingredients into the pan before bringing it to a boil. Others bring the water and milk to a boil before adding the tea and spices, allowing the mixture to steep as it cools. In India, local tea vendors called chai wallahs sell masala chai from marketplaces and roadside stands. Some of these brewers intensify the flavor and put on a show at the same time by skillfully pouring the tea back and forth between two pans held at a distance.