What’s the secret to making the perfect cup of Indian masala chai? The spices, of course!
Chai masala, or tea masala, is a blend of fragrant Indian spices. You infuse these spices into black tea in order to make spiced chai. Every Indian family has its own way of making chai and today, I’m sharing my family’s secret recipe with you.
For years, I’ve wondered why my chai never tasted as good as my mom or dad’s chai. I figured it was because my parents just had more experience making chai. Don’t get me wrong, I make a good cup. But I always felt like there was something lacking. Until now.
It turns out, they typically make two versions of chai – a quick version with basic whole spices, and then this – what I’ve deemed, their “special chai” made with a secret ingredient! It’s a spice that isn’t commonly used in chai – but it sure makes a difference.
I’m pretty excited about sharing this homemade chai blend with you. I’ve spent a lot of time going back and forth with my parents to ensure all spice ratios are absolutely perfect. It’s been hard work having to drink so much chai (lol) but I did it – just for you. 😏
You’re going to love this chai. I suggest trying my recipe as written first. I realize chai is personal though, so after you give my recipe a try, adapt it to your taste!
What is Chai Masala?
Chai Masala refers to the spices you use when making a cup of chai.
This blend can vary by family, but typically includes green cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, and ginger. I prefer having a jar of ground spices ready to use, but if I run out, then I’ll make do by simmering whole spices.
There are many different ways to make a cup of chai, but I believe my family’s recipe for chai masala makes for the best cup. Our family spice blend calls for at least one ingredient that I haven’t found in any other recipe, at least, not in any recipe on the internet. But before I tell you about that special ingredient, let’s first talk about masala chai.
What is Chai?
Masala chai is a creamy, spiced tea made with: black tea, spices, milk, and sweetener. I’m going to tell you all about chai’s interesting history below, but for now, here’s what you need to make a cup of chai:
- Black tea: you can use tea bags or loose-leaf black tea. I prefer the latter.
- Spices: see the spice breakdown below!
- Milk: I almost always use whole milk, but if you are dairy-free, you can use whatever milk you’d like. I like oat milk or cashew milk.
- Sweetener: I prefer sugar, but use whatever you like.
Okay, now on to the spices!
Chai Masala Ingredients + Our Family’s Secret Ingredient
Check out the list below – see anything unusual? Ajwain! That’s our family’s secret ingredient – it’s barely there but gives the masala some kick. The ratios in my chai masala are spot on and I can’t wait for you to try.
- Whole Green Cardamom Pods: every cup of chai calls for this fragrant floral spice.
- Fennel Seeds: I love the sweet aroma and flavor that fennel seeds add to chai. While I don’t see this in every chai recipe, I consider it a must have ingredient.
- Whole Cloves: add a uniquely sweet and warm aroma.
- Ajwain: THIS is our family’s secret ingredient! Just a bit of this gives the masala life! While ajwain is a pungent and aromatic spice with a strong thyme flavor – when used in this small quantity, it enhances the flavor of the masala rather than overpowering it.
- Ground Ginger: everyone loves ginger in chai, right? Right!
- Ground Cinnamon: just a touch adds the right amount of sweetness.
- Whole Black Peppercorns: all good chai should have a teeny bit of heat.
Spilling the Tea on Some Chai History:
I always thought of chai as a decidedly Indian thing.
I mean, drinking milky spiced tea is as Indian as it gets, right? Every Indian person I know drinks chai. And not only do we drink it, but we are also extremely particular about how it’s made. I sort of figured that drinking chai is something our ancestors did – a ritual passed down from ancient times.
But nope. Not even close.
Apparently, even at the start of the 20th century, the majority of Indians didn’t even know how to make tea.
That is crazy, right?
After delving more into Indian food history over recent years, I’ve learned that it was the British who introduced tea to India – they actually put a lot of effort into getting Indians to start drinking tea (so that Indians would, in turn, buy tea from them). I remember when I first asked my parents about this, they were basically like, “well yeah, Ashley… but we don’t focus on that.” 🤷🏽♀️
According to food historian Lizzie Collingham, it’s a myth that Indians shared their love of tea with the British; in fact, it’s the opposite. In her book Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, she writes “the conversion of the population to tea drinking was the result of what must have been the first major marketing campaign in India. The British-owned Indian Tea Association set itself the task of first creating a new habit among the Indian population, and then spreading it across the entire subcontinent.”
As someone fascinated by both food and marketing, I have to say, what a campaign… They went door to door, showing up at homes with tea kettles and making tea for families, persuading reluctant folks to drink their tea. Clearly, it worked. And for better or worse, we’re all addicted to chai. 🤷🏽♀️
Now that said, I do think it’s important to note that Indians did occasionally drink their own version of tea, made with spices and herbs rather than tea leaves. I assume that kind of “tea” was probably more along the lines of Turmeric Tea aka Haldi ka Doodh.
So I guess while the ritual of drinking tea may have come from the British (which they learned from China, who was drinking tea way back in the fourth century), I believe the chai that we all know and love is unquestionably Indian. We made it our own by adding milk, sugar, and spices. I’m not a fan of plain tea. But sweet, milky, spiced chai? Now that’s my cup of tea.
Tips for Making Chai
- The recipe below includes amounts for making either 1 or 2 or 4 cups of chai.
- Each cup of chai makes a total of around 6.25 ounces, which will fill up a teacup. Depending on the size of the mug/cup you use, you may need to adjust the amount of chai you make.
- The color of the tea can vary according to the brand of black tea you use. I personally like 24 Mantra’s Organic Loose Leaf Assam Black Tea which I get from my local Indian grocery store (no link to share at the moment, sorry!). Any brand will work.
- If you prefer a stronger cup of chai, use more black tea and/or boil it for a longer period of time.
- Make sure you have a good spice grinder. This is the spice grinder I have and love.
Try this masala blend the next time you make chai and tell me what you think. I’d love to know if there’s an ingredient you always add to chai – leave a comment to let me know!
More Chai Recipes
To Make 1 cup of Chai:
- 8 ounces water
- ½ teaspoon chai masala
- 1 ½ teaspoons loose leaf black tea
- 2 ounces whole milk
- 1 ½ to 2 teaspoons sugar to taste
To Make 2 cups of Chai:
- 16 ounces water
- 1 teaspoon chai masala
- 3 teaspoons loose leaf black tea
- 4 ounces whole milk
- 3 to 4 teaspoons sugar to taste
To Make 4 cups of Chai:
- 32 ounces water
- 2 teaspoon chai masala
- 6 teaspoons loose leaf black tea
- 8 ounces whole milk
- 6 to 8 teaspoons sugar to taste
To Make Chai Masala:
- Add all of the spices to a spice grinder and grind (this is the spice grinder I have and love).
To Make Chai:
- Add water and chai masala to a pot, and bring it to a boil.
- Add loose black tea and let it boil for 3 minutes.
- Add milk and bring to a full rolling boil (until you like the color of the chai), then turn off the heat.
- Strain into teacups.
- Add sugar to the teacups and stir.