I was recently asked to share my masala chai recipe, and it brought forth many feels. For one, hearing the phrase, “hot chai tea latte,” makes my brain melt from the nuclear-level redundancy, of which I am clearly not a fan.
The other source of my ire is ginger, one of the staple spices of masala chai. Venerated food writers, who shall not be named, insist that only dried ginger can be used, because the fresh will curdle your milk. While that is true of fresh ginger, it is also true that boiling temperatures will denature the protease that acts as the curdling agent. I’ve been making chai with fresh ginger since before I was born, and have never had it curdle. EVER.
Nonetheless, I set out to ‘test’ my formula, and thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be horrifyingly humorous, if this time I made chai cheese?” You know where this is going…
Earlier today, following my usual methodology, I produced such an undesirable fromage, not once, not twice, but a total of FOUR times. The self-recriminations built up to a roaring cacophony on each successive failure. I dug out my South Asian identity card to kill it with fire, whilst torturing myself with flashbacks of the last hour. On one such replay, I paused, rewound, and EUREKA!
The problem lay not with the ginger, but the tea. Dear Flying Spaghetti Monster, the TEA.
Yesterday, I spent hours in a dusty, musty garage playing with old books. My sinuses are stuffed, my eyes watery, and my wits nowhere to be found. All of that is compounded by eleventy-three trillion UNLABELLED mason jars laying about. I suppose I feel most alive when teetering on the edge of uncertainty ? What I thought to be a blend of Assam tea leaves and beach rose petals, was in fact hibiscus and rose. When my senses are in top form, I can smell the tartness, and clearly make out the shape of dried hibiscus, both of which completely escaped me today.
If you’ve ever tried your hand at paneer or any other style of fresh cheese, you know that it’s fairly simple to produce curds with milk and an acidifying agent. When the pH of milk drops, the proteins denature/unfold/bind together, and separate from the whey. The process is much accelerated at higher temperatures.
In this scenario, the stealthy hibiscus petals (laden with some combination of asorbic, malic, and/or tartaric acid) acted as a catalyst for an unholy pinkish-red curd. While I have not made a thorough study of this, if I had to hazard a guess, I would say one could incorporate hibiscus into dairy where the fat content is higher than the protein, e.g. heavy cream. If the desired end goal is to incorporate into milk, I would first infuse into cream, cool, and then combine. I may have to test this theory in the future, but for now, I will swerve back on to topic: fresh ginger is perfectly acceptable for use in masala chai, provided you understand the science, and adequately heat it before adding the dairy.
If you compare masala chai recipes across Pakistan, India, and the rest of South Asia, you’ll find variation not only in the ingredients, but in the process as well.
Those wanting a precise recipe shall be sorely disappointed. I can provide some ROUGH proportions, with the caveat that I tailor the combination to satisfy my craving at that moment. As with all cookery, I strongly urge you to play, tweak, and learn what suits you.
Masala Chai à la Maison Méli-Mélo
3-5 thin slices of fresh ginger
1/3 of a cinnamon stick
5-7 cardamom pods
a pinch of mace
1/4 teaspoon of peppercorns (I use a blend, along with grains of paradise, and spicebush)
2 cups of water
2 tablespoons of Assam tea leaves
1 teaspoon of rose petals
1 cup whole milk
splash of vanilla
raw honey, or any other sweetener of choice
Set water to boil with ginger. Using a mortar and pestle, break down the cardamom, cloves, peppercorns, cinnamon, and mace. Add to water. Brew until liquid is reduced by at least half, add milk, and bring to boil again. Add tea leaves, simmer for a minute, remove from heat, add vanilla, and let steep to desired strength. Strain into cups, and sweeten with honey (or not).
Notes & Substitutions:
For a richer brew, you can omit water, and use all milk.
If using nut milks, be mindful of the heat, as it can sometimes cause the oils to separate and float on top of the chai. I had this happen once with almond milk, and have written off the experiment entirely. When going this route, my preference is to add cashew milk after the tea is removed from heat to steep.
For those avoiding honey/sugar/maple syrup, blended medjool dates are a lovely option. Alternatively you could cook down a date syrup.
You can easily scale up to make a concentrate. I would suggest following all the steps until you’ve reduced your spiced liquid. Then store in the fridge until ready to heat with milk and tea.
After a traumatic experience with Ramadan, and caffeine-withdrawal, I make it a point to not drink chai everyday, and as such brew fresh, by the cup. Sure, I could drink it without the Assam, but then it fails to be my particular cup of tea, so to speak.