Have you been searching for something more meaningful than a Starbucks chai latte? Have you resorted to microwaving a Lipton tea bag with a milk-water hybrid, only to be met with a bland resemblance of tea that is either too milky or too watery?

Before you can peacefully sip that perfect cup of authentic Indian chai under the cover of your tapestry in a pair of harem pants, there are a few things you absolutely need to know. So put that Bollywood movie aside and read on; you are not ready for it yet.


Photo by Serena Ajbani

1.  Chai means “tea” in Hindi

So when you order a “chai tea” from your local hipster coffee shop, you’ll be receiving a tea made with Indian spices when you should really be receiving a painfully ordinary “tea tea.” From this point onwards, I will refer to your “chai tea” as masala chai.

2.  Masala chai has spices

Another Hindi lesson – “masala” is the Hindi word for spice. As the name suggests, masala chai gets its unique flavor from a special blend of spices. The best ones to use are cardamom, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, black pepper, fennel, and cinnamon.  If you want to make life a little easier, head over to an Indian grocery store or do some online shopping for a chai masala powder. These powders contain an already mixed blend of the above spices. Some brands I’ve used are Nirav and Everest.

3.  Masala chai is milky

None of that leaves-in-hot-water business. Masala chai is creamy, with a higher milk-to-water ratio than most other kinds of tea. I like to use a 1:1 ratio, or half a cup of each per cup of tea.

4.  Masala chai is sweet

Sickeningly sweet. Please do not try to drink masala chai without sugar or a sweetener. Just don’t do it. You get extra points if you can get your hands on cane sugar.

5.  Black tea

Masala chai is usually made with a black tea base. Loose tea is better, but tea bags work well too if you’re pressed for time. Assam tea, a type of black tea from the region of India where masala chai originated, is probably the most authentic base.

6.  You need to invest in a pot, and a little more time

If you want really quality masala chai, you’re going to have to make it the old-fashioned way. Invest in a pot and fill it with all of your ingredients. Boil it for about five minutes, and then strain all the loose ingredients out. This method of making masala chai definitely takes more time than the classic microwave method, but I promise, it’s worth it.

7.  Be willing to experiment

Growing up in an Indian American household, I’ve sampled a lot of masala chai recipes, and I’ve learned that each family has their own special one. Take the time to experiment with spices or brands of masala powder. Switch up your milk-water ratio every once in a while. Try condensed milk instead of sugar. Make your recipe your own.

8.  Drink your chai with people you love

What makes chai so special in Indian households is that you set aside time each day to share a crafted family recipe with the people you care about. It gives everyone a chance to talk about their days and share stories. Chai is a social concept and often stands as its own midday meal. Set out some cookies and share your new recipe with people who are important to you.

And if you ever have the good fortune to visit India and try a truly authentic masala chai from the hands of a chai wallah, or street vendor, promptly give up on all your endeavors to make the perfect masala chai.  Nothing you make will ever compare.


Photo by Serena Ajbani