Similar to how drinking coffee is a cornerstone of American culture, chai is served in India as a morning caffeine boost, an afternoon pick-me-up and even a cozy drink to cap off the day. And much like you can find coffee shops and carts in America, in India, ambitious young chai wallahs sell piping hot glasses of chai in the most crowded of places helping millions of people — both locals and tourists — get through their day.
In American coffee shops, "chai" has basically come to mean a flavor of tea with spices, but in India, as well as Pakistan and other parts of the subcontinent, chai is not a flavor — it’s just the generic word for tea in Hindi. So when you say “chai tea,” you’re actually saying “tea tea.”
The drink itself — brewed black tea (usually Assam) with milk, sugar and spices — is also called chai. The spices are optional when making chai, so when the aromatic blend of cardamom, cinamon, ginger and other spices get added, it's then traditionally referred to as “masala chai.”
The basic process for making your own chai at home involves boiling water, tea and milk (in some type of order) then bringing the chai to a rolling simmer before straining it into individual tea cups. There is a lot of debate over what the best method is, including when to add the milk, what type of tea to use, whether to use ground spices or whole, and how long to let the chai steep. Chai purists may prefer one way over the other, but it really depends on what you grew up drinking and what technique suits your tastes.
In one method, the milk and water are boiled together in the same pot before the tea is added. Another more popular method used in India is outlined below that allows the tea and spices to infuse the boiling water before being diluted with milk.
To bring out the delicate flavors of the tea and spices, it’s important to be patient and let the chai simmer gently in between rolling boils. When the milk is added, the chai should take on a deep, golden color.
In India, chai is typically made with fresh buffalo milk, which is very rich in fat and creamy. If you want to come as close as possible to the classic Indian chai flavor, you must use full-fat whole milk. If you're dairy-free, try to substitute milk with a rich milk alternative.
For such an uncomplicated drink, there is a whole world of possibilities. You can experiment with the recipe below by either omitting certain spices, adding more like ginger, or trying adventurous combinations like dried rose petals or lemongrass. There is simply no right or wrong, just preferences to create your own perfect cup.
How to make chai
1 cup water
1 cup whole milk
3 cardamom pods
½ stick of cinnamon (or whole if the stick is short)
2 rounded teaspoons of loose black tea
2 teaspoons sugar, or to taste
Pour water into a pot set over high heat and bring to a boil.
While water boils, crush the cardamom and cinnamon. You can use a mortar and pestle or simply the bottom of your mug to crush the pods open and to split the cinnamon stick open.
Just before the water comes to a rolling boil, add the spices and loose tea directly to the water and let it brew for 2 minutes.
Pour in the milk and turn the heat to a medium-low simmer.
Steep the chai for 12 minutes.
This step is optional but adds depth of flavor: Turn the heat up to high and allow the liquid to boil to the top of the pot. Then quickly turn it down so it doesn’t spill over.
After steeping, strain the chai gently through a small stainless steel strainer into individual tea cups. Stir in sugar to taste.