Born of colonial rule and Indian resistance, masala chai is more than just spiced milk tea. Epi contributor Leena Trivedi-Grenier traces the legacy of chai—and how Indians turned a tool of oppression into an enduring tradition—then shows you how to brew a great cup.
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Three times a day there is a small pot of masala chai bubbling on my stove, threatening to overflow. Milky foam and spice-filled bubbles rise above the pot’s edges, flecked with black tea granules and just daring me to look away. When I inevitably do, to help my daughter find her shoe or to break up a fight, not two seconds later I’ll hear that unmistakable whoosh and sizzle as chai floods my stovetop and smothers the flame. It mocks me. Chai’s strength knows no bounds.
I don’t even care. My chai ritual is a source of comfort, especially during difficult times, because it connects me to the flavors and traditions of my Gujarati family. These are the same flavors that have seen me through successes and struggles: marriage, difficult childbirths, professional losses and wins. That first spicy-sweet sip is simultaneously a warm hug and the kick in the pants that I need to survive another pandemic day with my family of five.
Masala chai is a milky, sweet, spiced-filled black tea preparation that originated in India but today is enjoyed throughout South Asia and the diaspora. (Masala = spice blend in Hindi and chai = tea.) In the United States, however, the drink has been diluted, rebranded to reflect white tastes rather than Indian tradition. White-owned brands pack bland mixes into teabags (that never fully rehydrate in a rapidly cooling cup) or sell syrupy concentrates that most South Asians would never recognize as chai. As a final insult they borrow names, symbols, and designs from South Asian culture to market their products, which they label “chai tea” or “chai tea latte,” names that people in and out of our culture have explained are offensive and redundant. (If I read another company origin story that starts with a white lady “discovering” chai in India and deciding that she deserved to profit off of the tradition, I’m setting something on fire.) Thankfully, the market is changing, and today there are South Asian American–owned chai companies offering exceptional blends and concentrates that yield fragrant, spicy cups (scroll down for my recommendations).
These exciting additions aside, though, Big Chai has shafted many people into believing that masala chai should be a cloying, overspiced milk tea completely divorced from its important history and culture. Frankly, you deserve better. Below I’ll give you a crash course in the drink’s colonial history and India’s rebellion against it. Then I’ll explore what masala chai means to a few Indian Americans in the food industry. Finally, with the help of other veteran chai makers, I’ll break down chai’s many variables so you can brew a flavorful cup of your own.
For me, masala chai starts with my grandmother, who my family called Motiben. I didn’t speak her native Gujarati, which made it difficult to communicate. But I was captivated by her chai ritual. Every morning after her puja, she’d make a cup heavy on the ginger and black pepper. It took her 20 minutes to drink—as much a ritual as her daily prayers—slowly pouring small shots from a stainless-steel cup into a matching saucer, where she’d blow on it and sip, over and over again. As a kid I never understood why it took so long, but as an adult I get it: This was her daily escape from the loneliness of a new country, a connection to the land and people that she left.
When Motiben was born in Shuklatirth, Gujarat, in 1922, her family didn’t drink masala chai; it was just being invented. But they did boil spices and herbs in water for medicinal brews, a 3,000-year-old Ayurvedic tradition for Hindus known as kadha that’s somewhat similar to an Islamic herbal medicinal practice of making spice and herb decoctions that also exists on the Indian subcontinent. By the 1950s, in her late 20s with a husband and five sons, Motiben made masala chai five times a day on a one-burner kerosene stove: at 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. for the family, at 7 a.m. and 4 p.m. for the family farmworkers, and at 3 p.m. for an extended family visit.
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How did making masala chai come to dominate Motiben’s day? White greed and Indian resistance.
What follows is a short summary of a very complex history. The British colonial presence in India lasted 350 years. It started with the East India Company, the only trading company that garnered permission from Queen Elizabeth I to trade with India. When the company arrived in Surat in 1608, the original plan was to purchase goods like silk and cotton cheaply, then turn around and sell them to the British for more. Over time the company set up trading posts and factories across India, fighting with everyone (the Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, and French traders; Muslim, Maratha, Sindi and Sikh rulers) until they were able to take control of most of the subcontinent. The company held power until 1858, when, after a year of soldier and civilian rebellions across North India in 1857, Queen Victoria said “y’all messed up,” dissolved the company, and took over the country until 1947.
Everything the East India Company did deeply affected the Indian people—including the brutal way they established the Indian tea industry. The British people had fallen in love with Chinese tea, but by the 1820s the Chinese began restricting trade with the East India Company because they knew that the trading company was trying to steal plants and tea knowledge from Chinese growers. So the East India Company started looking for places to grow tea in India. They already wanted control of Assam, which sat along the Silk Road and was connected to China, but the region had been under Burmese control since the 13th century. The East India Company convinced the Assamese that it wanted to protect them when it went to war with Burma in 1824. The East India Company won, took control of Assam and even put a local in charge of Upper Assam, but by 1838 they fired him and took over the entire state. By that point several British people had “discovered” tea growing in Assam, which meant that the East Indian Company could likely grow tea there successfully.
The East India Company adopted a plantation system for tea (modeled after the U.S. and Jamaica) that required a lot of cheap labor, and shocker—the Assamese wanted no part of it and rebelled. The British government got involved to quash worker revolts and attacks by local populations. After the East India Company successfully sold its first 350 pounds of Assam tea, it sold most of its plantations to the newly formed, privately owned Assam Company. To boost the tea industry, the British government agreed to basically give away land to any Europeans or wealthy Indians who were willing to plant tea, and to build transportation and communication systems for the plantations. From 1860 to 1947 planters transported 3 million indentured laborers from other parts of India to work in a vast system known as the Coolie Trade of Assam. European and Indian labor recruiters visited impoverished villages throughout India to find workers, who didn’t realize their contract would never allow them to return home. Recruiters would tempt potential workers with money, liquor, and women, and would kidnap young girls and marry them off at recruiting stations. If workers survived the long, disease-ridden trip to the plantations, they were often physically or sexually abused once they arrived.
For the first 50 years of this system, the tea tasted terrible. The Brits lacked the workers, processing knowledge, and efficient systems of transport that made Chinese tea great. So the planters began to worry about low sales and started looking for new audiences for their product. The Indian Tea Association, made up of British owners of most of the tea estate agency houses in the north and Bengal, realized, hey, we could profit more if Indians drank tea too! So in 1901 the Association launched a 40-plus-year campaign to indoctrinate Indians into drinking tea. The Association pushed cheap tea to the masses, giving it away at public gatherings and brewing demonstrations, and setting up tea stalls everywhere: railway stations, post offices, religious festivals. The Association convinced the local government to give industrial workers a daily tea break, conveniently establishing religiously segregated tea stalls outside. It also gave railway wallas (vendors) kettles and tea packets to start selling on trains. By the end of the 20th century, Indians consumed more than 70 percent of the tea produced in India.
“Adding the spices was really an act of rebellion against the British.”
Chaiwallas—street or roadside stand vendors that sold tea—started adding masala to tea sometime between World War I and the 1930s. This innovation was likely inspired by those Ayurvedic and Muslim medicinal spice brews—and because the cheap tea tasted bitter and strong. The Association took notice in the 1930s and started inspecting tea stalls to prevent the practice from spreading, even sending out competing tea hawkers who didn’t brew with spices—the addition of spices, the Association believed, meant that less tea would be used per serving and thus lower profits. While my research is ongoing, I suspect that many chaiwallas did not scale down the tea: Most modern masala chai recipes call for just as much (or more) tea as a plain cup would. But the Association shut down those tea stalls that used masala, calling it an adulteration of the product.ADVERTISEMENT
As history proves, that wasn’t the end of masala chai. “Adding the spices was really an act of rebellion against the British,” says Sana Javeri Kadri, owner of Diaspora Co., a single-origin sustainable spice company that supplies turmeric and other spices to chai drinkers and manufacturers. “Therefore, as our national symbol or a national drink, it’s a very symbolic one.”
The symbolism is many-layered. “Tea is a very classist drink,” Dr. Madhushree Ghosh tells me. Dr. Ghosh is a scientist and food writer working on her first memoir, called Khabaar: An Immigrant Journey, which includes a chapter on her family’s involvement with Indian tea. In the past, what you drank your tea in and even how you drank it could show your class in India: bone china for the British, stainless steel for wealthy Indians, kulhars (a.k.a. kulhads, unglazed clay cups) for the masses. Sipping tea from a saucer like Motiben did was considered low class.
Dr. Ghosh explains that the British drank and sold high-quality whole-leaf “orthodox” tea, but the masses of India drank CTC tea (short for crush tear curl, a processing method invented in 1931), a low-grade, strong-flavored, quick-brewing tea.
To many who couldn’t afford food, she continues, masala chai became a crucial form of sustenance. “Women would drink masala chai for the longest while because that was the only food they had…They had to give themselves the strength to work [at home] because it was manual labor.” Dr. Ghosh explains that tea is a stimulant and the spices have beneficial health properties. “There are all these things in that little eight-ounce cup that I don’t think any one of us even thinks about,” she says.
While the British may have forced the tradition of drinking tea onto Indians, they couldn’t control what it has meant to us over the years, the bad and the good. Preparing masala chai added considerable work to Motiben’s mothering days, especially after her husband died young. Motiben would make 25 cups in a single pot when her in-laws visited, desperate to please her husband’s brothers so that they would help take care of her sons financially. But years later, during my childhood, Motiben’s long chai breaks gave me a chance to steal sips from her saucer and become interested in this person with whom I couldn’t communicate. Decades after that, my uncles, Motiben’s sons, brought chai into the waiting room to share as my mother went through throat cancer surgery. We didn’t know if we’d ever hear her speak again, but the spicy cups comforted us.
While masala chai is popular across the Indian subcontinent and South Asia, it’s not consumed by every South Asian. Plain tea—with or without milk or sugar—is also popular, and there are many regional variations of masala chai. Some South Indian states have been growing and drinking filter coffee since the 17th century. But for Indians who grew up with masala chai, it has taken on a variety of meanings.
In the 1990s chef Preeti Mistry worked as a barista in Ohio as masala chai was becoming trendy. White managers explained chai as a syrupy concentrate mixed with milk and heated with an espresso machine, which wasn’t how Mistry’s family made it. “Chai was the epiphany for all the cooking that I do…I didn’t have the word for cultural appropriation, but I knew this was not right,” they tell me over the phone.
For food writer Pooja Makhijani, masala chai means connecting with family. When she was a kid visiting her grandparents in Pune, the entire family would do chai and snacks at 4 p.m. daily. As a single mother living with her parents in New Jersey during the pandemic, 4 p.m. chai has given rhythm to her days, an excuse to bake treats and check in.
Born in Jalandhar, Punjab, Monica Sunny would watch her paternal grandfather wake up early for his stressful police job to drink an entire pot of chai over a newspaper: a “chai meditation” for a man who worked through British rule and Partition. Now the owner of The Chai Box, an online shop for all things chai, Sunny started making chai before school at age five, a ritual she continued in Atlanta when her family immigrated there four years later.
“We had to grow up quickly, so my ritual was the one thing that was consistent from India to here. It kind of saved me,” she shares. Sunny does her own morning chai meditation daily, enjoying a cup of chai alone in her garden. She had weekly chai parties with her three sons when they were younger, and converted a masala dabba (Indian spice tin) into a “chai box” with spices, tea, sugar, and a recipe so they could easily make their own chai.
I wasn’t able to learn how to make Motiben’s chai from her before she passed, though my dad gave me a tattered copy of her recipe. It was the first family recipe that I learned by heart, and I tweaked it throughout the years as I learned more about chai. When my oldest daughter was four, I showed her how to crush cardamom pods with a mortar and pestle to release the seeds for our chai masala. Five years and two more kids later, grinding the chai masala is a task my children fight over, relishing the catharsis of smashing things with something hard.
Everyone makes masala chai differently. Often people will use a family recipe because of tradition or nostalgia. But I wanted to know: What do great cups of chai have in common? To find out—and to fine-tune my own recipes for dried masala chai and fresh ginger masala chai—I read recipes and interviewed chai-drinking Indians, including chai company owners working to change the perception of chai in the U.S. I also binge-watched masala-chai-making videos on YouTube. (The chaiwalla videos are my favorite, especially the Indian Johnny Depp!)
After all this I arrived at four major variables: spices, tea type, water-to-milk ratio, and brewing method.
The masala’s spices are meant to be customized. You can use ginger, green cardamom, and black pepper like I do or any other sweet or herbal spice, including clove, cinnamon, fennel, black cardamom, rose, mint, lemongrass, tulsi (holy basil), carom seeds (ajwain), star anise, nutmeg, or saffron. Chai masalas vary based on regional and cultural preferences—like Parsi chai/choi with lemongrass and mint—and privilege: Spices are expensive, and green cardamom is one of the priciest in the world. My personal recipe uses eight green cardamom pods per cup because I love their strong, bold flavor, but I recognize the privilege written into the recipe; feel free to use less, swap it for another spice like clove (I’d use 3) or cinnamon (start with ¼ teaspoon), or use my recipe as a guide to experiment and create your own perfect cup.
Spices tend to be handled in one of three ways: left whole, gently crushed, or fully ground. Motiben’s chai masala was ground, as was mine for years. It’s convenient, and you can use the masala easily in cooking and baking like Preeti Mistry does. But spices start to lose their flavor after being ground, which means the masala tastes weaker every day. Also, the last sip is always full of gritty ground spices, which ruins a good cup. But masala chai made with whole spices tastes watered down to me, and I need to use a lot more to get the flavor that I want. Dr. Ghosh explained that while whole spices will eventually release their essential oils into chai, gently crushing the spices in a mortar or with a skillet releases the oils more quickly, which means more flavor faster.
Hetal Vasavada, the author of the blog and cookbook Milk & Cardamom, says that whole green cardamom lends a floral flavor, while ground cardamom has menthol and citrus notes. I love both, so I bash the seeds with my mortar and pestle until they’re gently crushed and some pieces are ground. I also leave the husks in, something a lot of the chai companies I interviewed do. I’ve found that it lends a gentle floral cardamom flavor to my chai, so why waste that?
I love dried and fresh ginger equally, but the two ingredients yield two different cups of chai. Dried ginger is spicy and sweet, more of a one-note ginger flavor, while fresh ginger is more complex, aromatic, and pungent, with notes of lemongrass. I had a difficult time sourcing the larger chunks of dried and cut ginger used by many chai companies, so ground ginger was my only option. But since I use only ¼ teaspoon per cup, the last sip isn’t full of gritty spices.
Fresh ginger has an enzyme that can curdle milk between 140°-158°F. (It’s used for Chinese ginger milk curd and is a possible rennet substitute for cheese). To avoid chunky chai, the key is to first boil the ginger with water before adding milk, or to boil the water and milk together before adding ginger. Ginger skin is extra spicy; I leave it on because I like it, but you can peel your ginger with a spoon for a milder version.
Black tea is used for masala chai, and traditionally, it’s the cheap stuff: CTC Assam tea, a low-grade tea grown in Assam and processed into little pellets. It’s used by chaiwallas in India and by many Indians at home, partially because it tastes stronger than typical loose leaf black tea, which helps it to stand up against the spices. A more delicate tea like Darjeeling tends to lose all nuance when you add spices and milk. Chai is “a way to use the lowest grade of tea leaves and make it into something delicious,” Sana Javeri Kadri says.
Tea India CTC Assam Loose Black Tea
The Chai Box owner Monica Sunny has been blending different teas together since she was 12, and she enjoys using a mix of whole-leaf and CTC tea for her masala chai. She’s found that by mixing a delicate tea like Darjeeling with stronger teas like Assam, you can actually simmer it longer. “Once you add the milk,” she says, “that process of releasing the tannins almost gets paused. So you can boil it and double boil and it won’t get bitter; it will only get stronger in flavor.” I’ve tested my recipes using CTC Assam tea, Sunny’s True Blend, a high-grade loose leaf tea from Assam, and a loose leaf tea from Nilgiri; the last two made a weaker-tasting cup of chai.
The amount of tea you include can change based on your preference and caffeine tolerance. My stomach is sensitive to caffeine, and I find that ½ teaspoon of tea per cup gives just enough tea flavor without any harm. Many chai recipes recommend using between one and two teaspoons—Vasavada, who loves a bold cup and has no caffeine sensitivity, uses a tablespoon per serving. Do note that CTC tea is more dense than loose leaf tea, so if you plan on using loose leaf in my recipe, you’ll need more to achieve the same flavor, but will need to be careful with how long you boil it so it doesn’t get too astringent. Start tasting around three minutes; don’t go longer than five.
Chai is traditionally made with cow’s or water buffalo milk; I prefer using whole cow’s milk for its richness. But the milk available in India can vary by region. In Rajasthan you’ll find camel’s milk chai; goat or sheep’s milk would likely work for those allergic to cow’s milk, while plant-based milk works well for vegans (I tested my recipes using oat milk, pea-protein-based milk, and hemp milk). Monica Sunny has a helpful chart on different kinds of milk and how they work in chai here.
I’ve always used a 1:1 ratio of water to milk for a balance of tea flavor and creamy texture. A lot of chai recipes I’ve read use this measurement, except for Vasavada’s, which uses a ¼ cup of water and 1 cup of milk, yielding a rich cup. Her mother’s family had eight children and could afford only one bottle of milk a day, which meant that her mother’s parents, brother, and older sisters got full-fat chai, while her own cup was watered down. For Vasavada’s mother, upon reaching adulthood, “being able to even just have a cup of cha”—a regional spelling in several Indian languages—“full-fat milk for herself and to give to her daughters, was a small kind of mini feminist moment for her, you know?” Vasavada’s parents were both blue collar workers during her childhood, so money was tight, but food and masala chai was their luxury. “Chai recipes tell the stories of the families in the end,” she says, “what they had access to and what they found luxurious.”
The most common chai brewing methods instruct you to boil everything in a pot all at once for a long time, or to first boil the spices and tea with water, then add milk. Sunny is a big fan of the double boil, or bringing the milk to a boil once, letting it simmer a bit, and then bringing it to a boil a second time, which she says yields a creamier, richer chai. This works beautifully if you’re adding the milk after the other ingredients. I understand the ease of the all-at-once method, but I like the idea of making a spice brew first, creating a flavorful base before diluting it. Dr. Ghosh confirms that doing a spice boil helps rehydrate the dried spices properly. And for fresh ginger chai, the spice boil allows the water and ginger to get hot enough that the milk won’t curdle.
Some people prefer a low-and-slow method of making chai, and before my research began, I used to take that route. But Ayan Sanyal of Kolkata Chai Co. clued me into a chaiwalla trick from research trips to Kolkata: “Basically, the key is high heat. As long as you’re really scorching the thing, you can get the most out of your spices, and most out of your tea.” High heat allows chaiwallas to infuse the chai with flavor quickly, and it was the key step to my final chai recipes.
I had set out to find the best chai method available, but after all of my research and interviews, I’m not sure that’s possible. When I think of recipes like Vasavada’s, with such family history behind them, it feels disrespectful to say that there can be only one best way to make chai. But I will say that both of my recipes make a damn good cup of chai, one that I know would make Motiben proud.