India's most popular beverage is masala chai, or spiced tea. All the following items can be found at Mustafa Centre, as well as Indian or gourmet groceries.
• History: Masala chai is a fusion of traditional Indian spice and herb decoctions with tea, which was popularised in India by the British during the colonial era.
• Tea leaves (photo 1 and 2): Most commonly used in India are CTC (crush-tear-curl) black tea leaves, processed into small pellets, sold loose or bagged. These yield a strong brew which balances spices and milk. Shown here are two kinds of loose CTC tea sold ready mixed with spices. The first (left) is infused with a ground masala during processing; the second (right) is mixed with crushed spices after processing. Regional chai may use other teas. In Kashmir, green oolong tea is brewed with spices and slivered pistachios or almonds.
• Spices (photo 3 and 4): Common foundation spices for masala chai are cassia or cinnamon, green cardamom, clove, black peppercorn, nutmeg and fresh or dried ginger. On the left are the whole spices, and on the right a ground masala blend. Regional variants may call on other spices, for instance, black cardamom, saffron, long pepper or fennel. Also shown here is a modern product, a highly concentrated spice extract that can be added directly to brewed tea. Single-spice tea, such as ginger chai or cardamom chai, is also popular.
• Milk: Full-cream cow's milk is usually favoured. To boost richness, some use condensed milk, evaporated milk or malai (thick cream). Buffalo milk is also used in India. Before being added to the tea, the milk is usually heated and may also be mixed with sugar, or "pulled" (poured between glasses) to add froth.
• Brewing methods: Methods and preferences vary between regions and chai-wallahs (tea vendors). Some infuse the spices separately from the tea, some boil the tea leaves in water or boil them in milk, while others simmer the tea leaves, milk and spices together for hours for a potent result.
• A simple recipe: Combine 500ml of water with three tablespoons lightly crushed whole spices in a pot. Cover, bring to a boil over medium heat, then simmer gently for 10 minutes. Add two tablespoons of CTC or whole black tea leaves, cover and steep over very low heat for five to seven minutes. Stir in 400ml of hot full-cream milk plus sugar to taste, strain and serve. If using a ground masala instead of whole spices, skip the first step and add two or three teaspoons of masala to the tea leaves to steep along with them. If using tea leaves already mixed with spices, skip the first step.
• Western chai (photo 5): Popular in the United States in the early 1990s, it is now a part of the coffee-and-tea store culture. Western-style masala chai, served hot or cold, may incorporate flavours seldom or never used in the Indian original, including star anise, orange zest, fruit, vanilla and honey. It is often made with a dry mix, as shown here, or with spice-infused liquid tea concentrates and served in larger portions than the small cups used in India.
• Instant chai (photo 6 & 7): Three-in-one or two-in- one instant masala tea is now common in India and the West. Shown here are an Indian instant chai mix (left) and a Western mix (right). The Indian one is darker and has a stronger tea and spice kick than the Western one, which emphasises the sweet and milky aspects.
Text and photos: Chris Tan