I recently discovered my husband trying to look up “chai” in my herb books. He wanted to know the health benefits of drinking his morning cup of chai tea. He didn’t realize that chai is not an herb—but rather a blend of spices. Also known as chai masala, this Indian spiced beverage is now popular all over the world and can be purchased in many forms. But his interest sparked in me a desire to learn how to make my own, authentic chai blend.
After consulting several sources, however, I learned that before purchasing a long list of expensive ingredients I needed to know more about what to purchase, how to use it, and how to store it properly.
How to buy spices
To get the most flavor out of your spices, experts recommend buying them whole and grinding them yourself. That means rather than purchasing ground cinnamon, to buy stick cinnamon. Rather than getting powdered cloves, get the whole cloves. To grind your own spices, you can use a spice grinder, a coffee grinder, or a mini food processor. Of course you do not want to use the coffee grinder that you use every morning for coffee as the flavors will mix and mingle and you will end up with spicy coffee and coffee-flavored spices. I use a Mr. Coffee burr mill grinder that you can purchase at that big superstore for under $25. And to prevent the odors of any one spice from dominating your spice mill, grind sugar or rice after using it.
How to use fresh spices
Roasting enhances the flavor of most whole spices or seeds. To roast them, heat a small cast iron skillet over medium heat until hot. Add the spices. Shake them around while constantly stirring with a wooden spoon to prevent them from burning. Heat to a deep brown color. Cool before grinding. Even though we are learning how to make a chai blend, all the spices will not brown at the same rate. So you will need to roast them individually.
Storing your spices
Store your spices in an airtight tin or glass container in a cool, dark place—ideally between50-60 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat, moisture, and light cause the aromatic properties to break down. So you don’t want to keep them where most people do—in the cupboard above or next to the stove. If you are unsure of the freshness of your spices, simply smell them. If there is little aroma, throw them out. Stored properly, ground spices will keep a year; whole spices will keep for two.
Spices for chai
The recipes for chai masala vary. But most of them include some combination of the following spices:
All of these spices are known for their anti-inflammatory and stomach-soothing properties. In fact, ginger is widely prescribed as a more effective anti-nausea than pharmaceuticals.
Chai Tea Recipe
The following recipe is adapted from “Spiced Milk Tea” in Dr. Bharat B. Aggarwal’s book Healing Spices.
10 cardamom pods or ½ teaspoon seeds
1 one-inch cinnamon stick
4 white peppercorns
¼ teaspoon fennel seeds
2 cups raw milk
3 tablespoons evaporated cane juice
½ teaspoon freshly grated ginger
2 cups water
4 teaspoons of black tea leaves
1. Roast the spices as described above, cool, and grind to a fine powder.
2. Bring the milk to a simmer and add the spices, ginger, and sugar.
3. Boil the water and add tea leaves. Steep three minutes and strain.
4. Add the tea to the milk mixture and simmer for one minute.
5. Remove from heat, let sit a few more minutes before straining.
Photo by Ylva Turkey