How to: Be Your Own Chai Wallah

by Susanna Donato Nov 16, 2009

Above: Various spices used in chai. Photos by Susanna Donato.

Learn the skills of a chai wallah by creating your own delicious, homemade blend of chai masala. Just follow these directions.

In our temperate North American climate, October means crisp blue skies, the sweet dusty smell of leaves piling up beneath trees, and of course, a burning desire for warm, spicy food and drink.

Nothing says “you’re home” in fall like a pot of something to warm you up. I love to draw that warmth from around the world: Fall is for chai masala.

“Chai” means tea in many languages, and “masala” means mixed spices in some Asian languages. In the world’s biggest coffee chain, a place where the littlest drink is “tall” and mixed lingos rule, “chai latte” is the international term for spicy tea with milk.

A warm cup of chai

In India, the person who makes and serves chai masala is known as a chai wallah. In areas where no master of chai is handy, you can do the job yourself.

Of course, you can stop into a café or buy a boxed, condensed version of chai. If you do so, expand your horizons by asking about locally available brews. (In Colorado, where I live, some cafes carry locally microbrewed Bhakti Chai, a fiery, spicy variety.) Or you can save money and gain insight by brewing your own.

Brew in Bulk

For years, my husband has made chai in large batches — about a half-gallon (2L). The recipe is flexible and easy to personalize: add more pepper and ginger if you like it spicy; more cinnamon and vanilla for a smoother, sweeter style. But the basics are:

Put a large pot of water to boil.

Toss in spices (refer to leading image): About 1/4 cup (approximately 30) green cardamom pods, a cinnamon stick or two, 3-4 star anise, about 12 cloves (too many will make it numbing), a few slices from a ginger root or a teaspoon of ginger powder, a teaspoon of black peppercorns, and a piece of nutmeg and/or a vanilla bean if you like.

Boil for 30 minutes to an hour. Your house will be infused with the good smell.

Tea brewing

Turn off the heat, add tea — 1/4 cup of tea powder, or about six black tea bags. Cover and steep 5 minutes.

Strain into a pitcher. Stir in a spoonful of vanilla extract and sweeten to taste.

To serve, heat gently with milk to taste.

The whole process takes about an hour, largely unsupervised, and you can keep the pitcher in your refrigerator for a few days, reheating as you like. Explore local markets to find spices in bulk — you’ll have a travel souvenir or a new local haunt, and you’ll save money, too.

Authentic Style

You can also boil the mixture together with milk for a strong, creamy drink that is much closer to real Indian chai masala. Caveat: India is still on my travel wish list, so feel free to chime in with your own recipes or tips if you know better! But I can guarantee this tastes fantastic.

You can crush or grind the same spices used above. Out of curiosity, I recently picked up a packet of masala chai mix at our local Indian market. The word online is that these pre-packaged spices might be stale, but this shop is well-regarded and busy.

This style is best made to serve immediately. Double or triple the recipe if you’re serving more than one.

Bring 1/2 cup of water to a boil.

Masala chai mix

Add 1/2 teaspoon chai spice mix (or to taste — our mixture’s ingredients begin with black pepper and ginger, so it is very spicy). Boil 1 minute.

Add 2 teaspoons of sugar and 1 teaspoon tea powder (powdered tea reportedly holds up better and produces better flavor than tea leaves when boiled vigorously like this; we had some Ethiopian tea powder on hand). Boil 1 minute.

Add 1 cup of milk. (Some swear by using only half-and-half or whole milk to be really rich and creamy.) Bring close to a boil.

When the mixture is almost boiling, remove it from the heat for a few moments. Then put it back. Repeat this process — a dance of almost boiling, removal, return close to the boil — 5-7 times.

Steep, covered, off the heat for two minutes.

Strain the mixture and enjoy.

Boiled chai masala is richer in taste and more expensive to make, with the milk or cream, not to mention the personal effort. You can make it while doing other kitchen chores — I’ve been known to brew it up while emptying the dishwasher — but it’s also wonderful to be contemplative about it. Mixing up this spicy goodness can be nourishing to the soul, as well as the body. Breathe it in, connect and enjoy. Namaste!


Do you have a recipe for chai? Share it below in the comments.

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