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Five flavours » Indian, Vegetarian » Desperately Seeking Spices: easy masala chai

Desperately Seeking Spices: easy masala chai

Roaming the early morning streets of Kolkata looking for my favourite chai wallah, I knew that this was going to be an addiction that I’d probably never break. Same scenario, different country, this morning I was roaming the streets of Sandringham in search of a spice shop that was open early enough so I could get my morning fix. I’d dropped my husband off at work in the CBD and was sitting in traffic looking forward to breakfast when it came upon me. I needed masala chai, and I needed it quickly.

Sharp right at Balmoral and I was headed up Sandringham Rd with its Halal butchers, Indian tailor shops, Sri Lankan grocers, Bollywood DVD rental places and…spice shops! The only place open was a dairy run by an older Fijian Indian couple. I’m sure they’ll have it, I thought to myself as I dashed in. Scanning the shelves like some sort of masala Terminator, I wasn’t finding it. Panic was setting in. This can’t be right!

“Excuse me. Do you have chai masala?”
“Chai masala? Spices for chai?”
“Spices? Yes, here we have cardamom, haldi, green elichi, black elichi…”

(At this point I realised that he thought I was an idiot as we may as well have been standing in the middle of a market in India considering that we were surrounded by spices.)

“Sorry, I mean spices for chai, for tea.”
“Oh, tea masala!”
“Yes, tea masala!” (mental note to self: maybe Fijians call it tea instead of chai)

So, he proceeds to search the same shelves that I’d just searched and he was determined to find it without just asking his wife, of course. Finally I just said, “That’s OK, thank you.” I was keen to find another shop so I could get on with things.

I went up to the till to pay and he murmured something about tea masala under his breath and his wife shouts something that I imagined translated to, “Tea masala!? It’s right here at the end of isle 1 you eejit!”. Marital incidents aside, I was going into withdrawal symptoms now. “I’ll take it, thanks, and one of those fresh samosas, please.” You wouldn’t believe how quickly my fingers sped over the EFTPOS keys and I was out of there!

For those who’ve only had “chai lattes” in a café like Starbucks, you will find that this is an entirely different animal. While it’s true that chai in India comes sweeter than sweet, the spiciness is a bit more subtle yet somehow more ‘spice’-y. I don’t think the café ones have the black or white pepper in them that Indian ones do. If you don’t like the spices, you can simply make plain ‘milk tea’ and leave the spice out altogether.

I tend to use full fat, organic milk as it seems to be the closest thing to Indian milk. You can also use tea bags instead of loose tea if you don’t want to have to strain it, but I’d highly recommend loose. In buying chai masala (masala simply means ‘mix’), I’ve found that it is usually kept behind the till in a big jar. You just tell the shopkeeper how much you want and they scoop it out for you. It’s cheap as chips and you use a tiny bit, so buy it in small amounts in order to keep it fresh. This is the first time I’ve used the Fijian Indian mix that I purchased this morning so I was interested to taste the difference. Everyone makes it a bit differently so just shop around until you find the one you like, or make your own.

Masala chai

3 cups freshly drawn water
6 teaspoons white sugar (or to taste)
½-1 teaspoon chai/tea masala
3 cups full fat milk
6 teaspoons loose black tea

Bring the water, chai masala and sugar up to a low boil adding the milk after the sugar has dissolved. Let boil for a few minutes or longer if you can wait, but be mindful of scorching. The longer it boils, the creamier it will be. Next stir in the tea and turn off the heat. Let the tea brew for about 2-4 minutes. This should be for a few seconds longer than you would brew your normal cup of tea. Finally, strain the tea into cups or a thermos flask to take to work.
Chai ingredients

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