Discovering masala chai over a pedicure: what it is and how to make it

“By the time I was a teenager I had worked out a game plan to get myself out of trouble: make hot tea for my parents when they came home from work. It usually worked very well; the sweet hot tea infused with ginger and cardamom would soften their reactions to whatever I had done wrong that day.”

Nik Sharma, The Flavour Equation

So, during our visit to India earlier this month, we went to a wedding.

We’d fitted in a rushed quarter of an hour at Hydrabad airport fitting ourselves out with suitable ‘daywear’ (the supremely comfortable Salwar Kameez – I found the only vaguely presentable togs, unaccountably, on the ‘teenage’ rack).

But the truth was that we weren’t really presentable.

The bride generously provided saris and a ‘making of the bride’ celebration (more on that in a later post) entwined our hands artfully in threads of deep, dark henna.

Another Indian friend metamorphosed into a fairy godmother, patiently shepherding us and our un-Indian physiques through the shopping experience of a lifetime. I got stuck in one unhappy garment and she needed to give a few robust tugs, weakened by stifled giggles rather than the light touch of her wand, to escape the determined shoulder-griping fabric. Eventually, however, we were resplendently dressed for the ball.

But then there was the problem of our feet. We’d forgotten about the custom of removing shoes before entering a house in India. And our suddenly revealed toes and feet were not a pretty sight: rough, porcine-pink, flaking and unappealingly nude. There was nothing for it but a trip to Bubbles, the nearest beauty salon.

Communication (now without our genie) was problematic. We could transmit our essential purpose by mime, with only a fleeting concern regarding the proximity of the candle flame to the soles of our feet. But we all gave up with the theatrics when it came to specifying our preferred refreshment, and the pedicurists made an executive decision on our behalf.

They brought us masala chai, which literally means ‘spiced tea’. However, the trick is to forget the tea element – this is really spiced milk with the tea component lending only a very discreet accent to the other stronger flavours supplied by the ginger, cinnamon, cardamom and star anise. The correct, full name is masala chai doodh where ‘doodh’ means milk and this drink would be more accurately named if it were the ‘chai’ which was more commonly dropped – if you don’t like milky drinks this isn’t for you.

They served it piping hot, but it can also be served ice cold.

Every area, every family, every one, has their own recipe. And at the Samode Palace hotel in Jaipur they even serve a masala chai crème brûlée – follow this link for the basic recipe and simply flavour the cream with the tea and the spices and leave out the fruit.

For a wonderful article, “Masala chai: how the spiced tea went global — and how to make it”, by Anjli Raval in The Financial Times, follow this link.

Recipe for masala chai

For two people

  • 2 x star anise
  • 80 ml/⅓ cup water – boiling
  • 1 heaped tsp looseleaf black tea – Assam is normal
  • 4 pods of cardamom
  • Cinnamon stick (cassia is ok)
  • Knob of bashed ginger
  • 480 ml/2 cups milk
  • 1 tsp sugar (or more for more authenticity)
  1. Boil a kettle
  2. Put the tea and spices (except the star anise) into a saucepan and pour over the boiling water.
  3. Bring back to the boil, and add a slosh of milk – bring to the boil. Another slosh. Bring back to the boil…. Repeat until the milk is finished.
  4. Add the sugar and boil furiously for a couple of minutes – don’t let it boil over of course.
  5. Serve, garnished with the star anise.
This post is dedicated, with thanks, to our fairy godmother, Krithika Theyagarajan.
masala chai recipe
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