All over the world, people love to drink a cup of tea – it’s reviving yet soothing, consoling yet convivial, enchanting yet familiar. One of the most memorable teas is the one that all of India drinks – masala chai.
Chai means tea, of course, and masala means spice and so it’s a spicy tea. Tea has many health benefits as its compounds help with cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. It also encourages weight loss and lowers cholesterol. Like coffee it brings about mental alertness but with far less caffeine than a standard cup of java. Most spices also have considerable health benefits including anti-oxidant, anti bacterial, and anti-microbial effects. So by putting the tea and spices together, you get a really healthy drink.
The custom of tea drinking in India really got going in the mid nineteenth century when the British started to encourage the production of tea on a commercial scale. Previously tea had been grown in India but only in small amounts, as it was seen as a herbal remedy rather than an enjoyable social drink. The Indians quickly made it their own by adding spices – and these vary slightly from region to region and family to family. You can get tea bags of masala chai but the results are less flavourful than making it yourself. Alternatively you can select the spices and prepare them yourself but this can be fiddly and take time, or you can get a mixture of spices already for you to brew up. The Tropical Spice Garden’s two shops in Penang now sell a gourmet spice blend of masala chai containing a mouth-watering blend of cardamom, black pepper, ginger, coriander, cloves, nutmeg, fennel, and star anise.
Rather than pouring boiling water on tea leaves, masala chai is made by infusing and simmering the leaves in the water. Put about half a litre of water in pan with two tablespoons of black tea and a tablespoon of the masala chai mixture. Bring it to the boil and then turn the heat down and allow it to simmer for two or three minutes. You can add milk and sugar to taste. Some people add milk to the water and heat it with the spice infusion, in which case, reduce the volume of the water to compensate. If you want to make this drink super-healthy, then use stevia (also sold in the Tropical Spice Garden’s shop) instead of sugar. It has sweetness but no calories so it won’t spike your insulin levels or make you gain weight. In East Africa where this drink is really popular, people brew a large quantity of masala chai in the morning and keep it hot in a thermos. So it’s always time for tea!