The chai phenomenon has swept across the United States for over a decade, partly because of our growing tea and coffee culture and the rising popularity of Indian cuisine. But do you know the difference between chaiand masala chai?

The Hindi word for tea is chai, a derivation of the Chinese word for tea — cha. Thanks to a 20th-century promotional campaign sponsored by the Indian Tea Association, black tea with milk and sugar is a common hot beverage found in homes and offices across India. You might recall the lead character in the 2008 movie Slum Dog Millionaire whose occupation was chaiwallah,a person who delivers tea to office or factory workers.

Chaiwallahs are also found on the platforms of every train station throughout the country. Rail travelers pay a penny for a small serving of chai which comes in a disposable clay cup. Good for only a few sips, the crude cups are casually tossed onto the tracks where they become part of the graveled rail bed. 

The Hindi word masala means spice mixture. Put the two terms together and you have masala chai, a blend of strong black tea with green cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, milk and sugar. This is the aromatic milky sweet beverage Americans have discovered in both tea and coffee houses. It begins with a base of strong black tea, usually an Assam CTC grade. CTC stands for crush, tear, curl — an inexpensive grade of tea manufactured via a machine which resembles a huge sausage grinder. This machine produces tiny tea nuggets used in many English blends.



Americans simply call this spicy concoction chai. It’s often prepared in coffee shops using a concentrate or mix. But if you want the real masala chai experience, purchase an authentic blended masala chai from a reputable tea purveyor. Give it a long steep, add milk, sugar or honey, and an optional crank of fresh pepper. (I sometimes like a decadent dollop of sweetened condensed milk.)  This frothy concoction can also be served over ice for an incredible summertime drink, or infuse it in cream to make a delicious chai ice cream.

By the way, here in Kentucky, we sometimes slip a bit of Bourbon into our iced chai for an added element of delight!

You can buy masala chaiready to steep, or make it yourself using this recipe.

Homemade Masala Chai

4 whole cloves
2 cardamom pods
1 cinnamon stick, broken into pieces
3 cups water
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup milk
3 tablespoons sugar or honey
2 tablespoons, or 4 teabags Assam black tea

Using a mortar, crush the cloves, cardamom pods and cinnamon. Transfer the crushed spices to a small saucepan, add the water, ginger, and pepper and bring to a boil. Remove the pan from the heat, cover and let steep for 5 minutes. Add milk and sugar to the pan and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and add dry tea. Cover and let steep for 5 minutes. Stir the masala chai, strain it into a warmed teapot or directly into teacups.  Serves 4.

This article first appeared in the March 2013 edition of TeaTime magazine. TeaMaestro Bruce Richardson serves as Contributing Editor for the magazine.

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