Masala chai (Hindi (मसाला चाय [masālā chāy], "spiced tea") is a beverage from the Indian subcontinent made by brewing tea with a mixture of aromatic Indian spices and herbs. By itself, chai is merely the generic word for tea in much of the world, but for many English speakers outside those regions, "chai" is always construed as "masala chai".
In much of South Asia, chai is almost as popular as coffee, and street vendors called "chai wallahs" (sometimes spelled "chaiwalas") are a common sight in many South Asian neighborhoods. It is also popular in Irani cafés.
The traditional chai-brewing process in Russia and India actively boils the tea leaves over sustained heat. Chai prepared in this manner has nearly the same amount of caffeine as coffee, as the prolonged boiling produces a more robust beverage than quiescently steeping the tea leaves in hot (but not boiling) water. For more information about international preparation methods and consumption patterns, see Tea culture.
The method can be varied according to taste or local custom: for example, some households may combine all of the ingredients together at the start, bring the mixture to a boil, then immediately strain and serve; others may leave the mixture simmering for a longer amount of time, or begin by bringing the tea leaves to a boil and only add the spices toward the end (or vice-versa).
There is no fixed recipe or preparation method for masala chai and many families have their own special versions of the tea. The tea leaves (or tea dust) are left steeping in the hot water long enough to get the flavor of the tea but not so long that the bitter tannins in the tea leaves are released. Because of the large range of possible variations, masala chai can be considered a class of tea rather than a specific kind. However, all masala chai has the following four basic components:black tea, such as Assam, so that the various spices and sweeteners do not overpower it. However, a wide variety of teas can be and are used to make chai. Most chai in India proper is brewed with strong black tea, but Kashmiri chai is brewed with gunpowder tea. sugar is sufficient, although individual tastes may favour the caramelised notes from Demarara, other brown sugars, palm or coconut sugars, or the more complex slight acidity of honey. A surprisingly large quantity of sugar may be required to bring out the flavour of the spices; one recipe uses three tablespoons of sugar in 3.5 cups of chai. See the below section on milk for the inclusion of information on using condensed milk as the sweetener. cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, star anise, peppercorn, and cloves.
Cardamom is a dominant note in traditional chai masala. Ginger, black pepper, and cloves are also used in Indian masala mixtures and cuisine. Having ginger or black pepper is considered important as it gives chai a slightly spicy flavour. In India, for example, fresh ginger is usually used.
In Western India, mint leaves are also considered a major ingredient, while star anise, black pepper and cinnamon are expressly avoided. The Kashmiri version of chai is brewed with green tea instead of black tea and has a more subtle blend of flavorings: almonds, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and sometimes saffron.
Both dry instant mixes and liquid concentrates can be replicated at home. Unsweetened iced-tea powder can be tailored to individual taste with powdered spices, sugar, and (if desired for convenience and mouthfeel) dry nonfat milk and dry nondairy creamer; the result can be mixed with hot water to produce a form of instant chai masala. This form of dry mix has certain disadvantages, however: the powdered spices may leave an unpleasant grainy residue at the bottom of the cup, and it may dissolve poorly in cold water, especially in the presence of dry milk/creamer powders.
Similarly, a liquid concentrate can be made by brewing an unusually concentrated pot of highly spiced tea, so that the dilution of a small amount into a cup of hot water or a glass of cold milk results in roughly the same concentration of tea as in a normally-proportioned brew; e.g., to make a syrup from which one ounce suffices to make one eight-ounce cup of normal chai when diluted, brew tea (and the proportional quantity of spices) at eight times normal concentration.
Some American supermarkets also carry bottles of "chai spice" alongside their dried herbs and other spices. Unlike Indian spice mixtures, the American ones are generally made from powdered spices (and sometimes sugar) and can be added at the last minute to an already-brewed cup of tea as there is no need (or way) to strain off the solids.
Some American coffeehouses offer a version of masala chai augmented with espresso, but this beverage does not have any one universally recognized name. Depending on the establishment, it may be called "java chai", "red eye chai", "chai charger", "tough guy chai", "dirty chai", or many other different names. However, despite the common tendency in many countries to use the term "latte" to mean "cafe latte", the term "chai latte" does not generally imply the presence of coffee in the beverage; see the Spiced tea terminology above.