It’s no secret that teatime is my favorite time of the day.
About five minutes before my husband comes home from work, my toddler and I make our way to the kitchen. I start preparing the tea and he picks out which biscuits–or as he calls them, biccies–he wants to dunk once Baba arrives.
Although we enjoy all types of tea, the kind we crave is sweet, milky and slightly spicy–the masala chai of India.
Authentic Indian-style tea, commonly known as chai or cha, is not the same “chai” you get if you order it at most coffee shops in America. Here, Indian masala chai (mixed-spice tea) has become synonymous with the word chai; but chai is just a word for tea. It is not a type of tea, and it definitely does not come from a bottle of artificially flavored syrup.
If you’re looking for a good pot of chai in Rochester and don’t want to make your own, I highly recommend Kabab Restaurant located on East Center Street, near the Civic Center. It’s creamy and delicious! It’s also a large quantity of tea, so bring a friend (or a thermos!).
There are many ways to make an authentic cup of chai at home. and they’re all quite delicious and easy! I first learned to make Indian-style tea from my Baba (father, father-in-law in my case) many years ago. He never uses measurements, instead relying on the color and smell to know that his tea is ready. He also seldom uses spices and prefers the simple mix of water-milk-tea leaves.
Personally, I think the best is made with strong, black tea leaves, thick whole milk and a whole lot of sugar–just like what they serve at the roadside dhabas (food stands/restaurants) in India. But since we drink chai daily, we tend to use less sugar and lower fat milk. Sometimes we add spices. Sometimes we don’t. Once in awhile, if I’m feeling lavish, I’ll even throw in a pinch of saffron threads. The addition of saffron takes the tea to a whole different level. Fancy!
There is really no secret to making a good cup of chai. Instead, success really depends on the quality of water and milk more than anything. We’ve even found certain brands of milk with the same milk-fat make better tea than others (we like Costco’s organic 1% for our everyday tea).
The tea leaves are also important. I’ve tried many brands, and the tea leaves we prefer are Brooke Bond Red Label loose leaf. It’s fairly inexpensive, and although we buy it from the Indian shop, it can even be found at most grocery stores–including Walmart.
I start the tea by tossing everything into my chai-pot and cranking the heat. I’ve tried boiling the water and milk separately and adding the milk at the end, but really it’s easier to just toss it all in together. I haven’t really noticed that my laziness affects the taste, so I’ll keep on keeping on!
When I’m making masala chai, the spice mix also gets added to the pot.
I mix, roast and grind my own spices in bulk but that’s not really practical for most people. Whole spices are perfectly fine to use and if you would prefer a ground masala (spice-mix) you can purchase online or at an Indian grocery store. Look for “Tea Masala.”
After everything is tossed in the pot and the heat is cranked, I wait for the tea to boil. Once it reaches it’s first boil, I turn it to medium-high heat and let it simmer a bit. There’s not really a set amount of time to wait until the tea is done, but instead watch for the color. The tea should turn a nice brown color. If it’s pale, it’s not done.
I like to let my tea reach its boil at least 3 times. Sometimes that takes five minutes. Sometimes it takes ten. If it’s boiled too long, the tea can become concentrated and may not taste the way it should. This is why I usually cook on a higher heat for less time rather than low and slow.
Once the tea is done, I take it off the heat and strain into glasses immediately. There are few things better than a steaming, hot cup of chai, and I look forward to our family teatime everyday–especially as it gets colder outside.