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y grandmother, a devout Muslim, used to routinely chastise me for not attending daily morning meditation. “Back in my East African village of Chanjuru, the whole family went,” she said archly. “We would head to the mosque at four o’clock every morning for solitary reflection—to ponder the state of the world, the meaning of life and the divinity of the soul.”

“And how long did you meditate for?” I asked, awed at such devotion.

“Why, until the kerosene stove turned off, of course,” she replied in surprise. “That’s when the chai was ready.”

Across the myriad languages, religions and rituals that make up our culture, chai is the common thread that binds the South Asian experience together. Not bad for some water, leaves, spices and milk in a cup.

This is the reverence with which chai is invested by South Asians, whether they hail from Bombay, Lahore, Chicago or a small village in rural Africa. Across the myriad languages, religions and rituals that make up our culture, chai is the common thread that binds the South Asian experience together. Not bad for some water, leaves, spices and milk in a cup.

Chai serves as a bookend to our frantic days. A steaming cup of tea steadies one’s constitution in the morning, while some juicy gossip over an evening cup completes the day. Chai heralds the end of a good meal and the beginning of a long journey. It marks bigger beginnings and endings, too; it is served after religious ceremonies at weddings and christenings or to comfort the grieving after a funeral. Chai is more than a beverage; it provides vital starting and ending points to life.

The start of the (tea) party

But perhaps what makes chai most special is not just that we find comfort in it—our ancestors over hundreds of years imbibed the same drink we indulge ourselves in today. In fact, Indians living in the jungles of the Assam region have been brewing the leaves of the native tea bush for more than four centuries. Yet they kept this delicious secret all to themselves until the British discovered their tea bushes in the 1830s and began tea production on a large scale. Having imported all their tea from China up until that point, the British were faced with an enormous trade imbalance and no way to finance their precious tea. England’s solution? Selling opium grown in India to China in order to fund their imports. Predictably, Chinese society rapidly deteriorated until the country revolted, resulting in the Opium wars from 1839-1842.

The history of masala chai, in true Indian fashion, is steeped in mystery and sweetened with folklore. Legend has it that this spiced, milky take on traditional black tea was invented more than 5,000 years ago by an Indian king who guarded it as a precious treasure.

Your Mom Was Right… Again.

Turns out all of your mother’s proclamations about tea being good for you were right—several recent studies have shown the healing benefits of a good cuppa:

Tea contains natural anti-oxidants called flavonoids, which help reduce heart disease by lowering cholesterol and high blood pressure. In fact, drinking two cups of tea a day provides the same number of flavonoids as one serving of fruits or vegetables.

An apple a day may keep the doctor away, but a cup of tea keeps the dentist away. Tea provides on average 70 percent of our daily fuoride intake, helping build strong bones and teeth.

According to a Russian study, tea may also help reduce the risk of cancer. Women who drank black tea regularly had a 60 percent lower risk of rectal cancer. Men’s results were not as strong, probably because they also drank generous amounts of alcohol.

Is mom making you wash out your mouth with soap? Try tea instead. Tea has antibacterial properties that help neutralize the germs in your mouth—everything from influenza, diarrhea, and pneumonia to skin infections and even herpes.

Masala chai is even better for your health, which is not surprising considering its Ayurvedic origins. It uses many spices known for their healing properties, including ginger, which helps digestion and reduces blood pressure; cinnamon, which helps in treating stomach problems and alleviating gas and cardamom, which relieves stomach cramps.

Meanwhile, the English needed to look elsewhere for their tea fix and began experimenting with tea cultivation in the jungles of Assam. The experiment was a success, and Assam tea received the noble stamp of approval by British high society. So the tea trade flourished, expanding to the town of Darjeeling in the Himalayan foothills—and the rest is history. India is now the world’s largest tea producer boasting 14,000 tea estates and more than two million people working in the tea trade.

The history of masala chai, in true Indian fashion, is steeped in mystery and sweetened with folklore. Legend has it that this spiced, milky take on traditional black tea was invented more than 5,000 years ago by an Indian king who guarded it as a precious treasure. Many attribute its origins to Ayurveda, the ancient Hindu system of mixing together herbs for medicinal purposes. Maybe this is why our aunties are so quick to make a cup to cure all manners of aches and pains.

Masala chai didn’t cross the ocean into America until the 1970s. Americans visiting India for the quintessential “karma kick” liked chai so much, they brought it home to the US. Along with the Beatles and Ravi Shankar, chai joined the frenzy for all things Indian and then gradually receded into the beverage underground. In the 1990s, chai was popularized once more by Starbucks and other fashionable cafes looking for ways to make hot beverages exotic and exciting to the masses.

Nothing like the real thing

Of course, anyone who’s opted for a chai latte at Starbucks or Xando knows that it is a sorry substitute for the real thing. Making the perfect cup of masala chai is more than the type of tea you use or the spices you add; it’s about the process. Just ask my father, who can sum up every religious event or family get-together by the quality of chai served. After a particularly bad evening, he will scowl, “The chai tasted like rainwater!” Tea sums up his whole experience, and serving a good cup to a guest is paramount to a successful event.

It was from watching my father bent over the stove when guests came over that I learned to make the perfect cup. You start with Assam tea leaves, a strong, full bodied Indian tea which is ideal to pair with heavy milk and spices. Add the leaves to boiling water and let it simmer for a while. Next, add the spices. Our family recipe, which has traveled from India to Africa to Canada, uses crushed cardamom pods, cloves and cinnamon sticks which are boiled with the tea and then strained out when pouring. Black pepper, ginger and nutmeg are also popular additions. Once the spices are added and the mixture is boiled for a few more minutes, liberal amounts of evaporated milk and a little fresh milk are added until the chai achieves its signature reddish-golden color. And there you have it: the perfect cup of chai. Of course, which spices to add when, how many times the mixture is boiled and how long the tea should be steeped are all subjects of hot debate among chai connoisseurs, and it seems that every family from here to Bengal has their own ancient family recipe.

Today, the rituals of drinking chai are woven into the fabric of South Asian society, from the chaiwallahs of India whipping up steaming cups served on chipped flatware on train platforms to families greeting visitors at the door with a porcelain teacup as a gesture to welcome them into their homes. “Chai is like any favorite family meal,” says Kamini Mamdani, owner of, a web site offering homemade packaged tea to customers worldwide. “It is something you grow up with and have fond memories of enjoying.” Mamdani has been making authentic Indian chai accessible to the masses since 1999, when she and her mother Mani Vallabh put together a package including loose-leaf tea, a tea strainer and their traditional chai masala, made from an ancient recipe handed down from ancestors in Gujarat.

Is the ritual of the chaiwallah a dying one, to be replaced by a smiling barista serving a cup of frothy, milked-up pseudo-chai at Starbucks?

A tradition transformed

Chai still remains an integral part of the daily ritual, not only in countries like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, but anywhere South Asians have migrated. But is the ritual of the chaiwallah a dying one, to be replaced by a smiling barista serving a cup of frothy, milked-up pseudo-chai at Starbucks? Not according to Mamdani. While the tradition of serving guests fresh, steaming cups of homemade chai may be dying out, Mamdani thinks South Asians are turning to quicker, more efficient ways to keep the traditions of their families alive in their new countries. “I have many Indian friends with whom I share my masala. They come to me because they either don’t have parents in the US, or they don’t have family blends of chai masala. For them, using our chai masala means that they don’t have to mix their own blend.”

So mortar and pestle have been traded in for pre-ground mix, chaiwallahs replaced by microwaves. While the tradition of chai is continually evolving, it shows no signs of dying out. Wherever there is a group of South Asians laughing, talking and sharing good gossip, chances are, there’s a pot of chai nearby.

Time to Head to the Kitchen

Nirali rounds up chai recipes from the traditional to the exotic.


Traditional Masala Chai

Want to try it on your own? Here is a traditional recipe to start with. Feel free to get creative with the amounts of spices added, or even add your own if you’re feeling daring…

2 cups water
3-4 teaspoons tea leaves
1 chunk dried ginger
3-4 crushed cardamom pods
3 whole cloves

1 piece cinnamon
1-2 whole black peppers
Sugar to taste
1 cup milk

To prepare:

1. Bring two cups of water to boil. Add all the ingredients (except milk and sugar) and boil again for about 15 seconds. Let stand for one minute.
2. Warm milk in a pot. Filter the tea with a strainer into cups. Add milk and sugar and serve.

Recipe courtesy of Indian recipe site


Citrus Chai Iced Tea

Impress your friends with your culinary savvy with this twist on traditional masala chai.

1 cup sugar
2 cups cold water
1 teaspoon chai masala
6 cups boiling water
2 tablespoons loose tea leaves

Juice of 2 lemons
Juice of 2 oranges
1 cup unsweetened pineapple juice
Fresh orange or lemon slices for garnishing

1. Combine sugar, cold water and chai masala in a pot and bring to a simmer.
2. In separate pot, pour boiling water over tea and let steep for 3 minutes.
3. Strain tea and combine with fruit juices.
4. Add to spice mixture and simmer for 5-10 minutes. Serve hot or let cool and serve iced. Makes 10-12 drinks.

Recipe courtesy of

Chai Creme Brulee

And for those of you who want to get really fancy, try chai in dessert form from The Food Network’s show Cooking Live.

1 cup Darjeeling tea leaves
12 extra large egg yolks, beaten
1 cup brown sugar
4 cups heavy cream
1 tablespoon chai spice powder
1 cup light brown sugar

Chai spice powder:
1 teaspoon cardamom
1 stick cinnamon
½ teaspoon black pepper corns
¼ teaspoon whole cloves

1. Steep 1 cup Darjeeling tea leaves in 4 cups boiling water for 7 minutes. Strain tea leaves and reduce to 3/4 cup.
2. Grind spice to powder. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
3. In a large heat-proof mixing bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and sugar.
4. Place the cream in a heavy bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Warm just until bubbles form around the edge. Remove from heat and, whisking constantly, pour into the egg and sugar mixture.
5. Add the spice powder and the reduced tea liquid. Continue whisking until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is well combined.
6. Pour the mixture through a very fine sieve into 6 creme brulee dishes, filling them only half full. Place the dishes into a shallow baking dish large enough to hold them without crowding. Place the dish on the middle rack oven.
7. Working quickly to preserve the heat, finish filling the dishes with the custard mixture, making sure that it comes right to the top of each dish. Then carefully fill the baking dish with very hot tap water so it comes halfway up the sides of the filled dishes. Bake for about 25 minutes, or until the custard is set in the center.
8. Transfer the custards to a wire rack to cool. Refrigerate for at least 3 hours, or until ready to use.
9. When ready to serve, preheat the broiler. Pass the brown sugar through a fine sieve to eliminate all lumps. Generously sprinkle the top of each chilled custard with an equal portion of the brown sugar, taking care to cover all of the custard, so that it gives an even finish.
10. Place the chilled creme brulee dishes under the preheated broiler and broil for about 2 minutes, or until the tops are crackling brown. Remove from the broiler and serve immediately.
Serves 6
Recipe courtesy of Raji Jallepalli. n

Published on November 1, 2004.
Photography: Vikram Tank for Nirali Magazine.
Comments are closed.
  1. September 22, 2008, 2:12 am Fozia

    Love your chai blog, and the images are beautiful too!