Sunday, February 14, 2016

Revisiting making masala chai (Indian style spiced tea)

I had some unfinished business with masala chai due to buying spices to make it in Indonesia last December.   I since used those to make a tea that was really a variation of on as a Christmas blend, borrowing some aspects for that version, but still wanted to try a more traditional take.  We had a cold weather spell during which masala chai would have made more sense here a week ago--down to the teens Celsius, low 60s Farenheit, not all that cold--but I missed it, so I made masala chai when it wasn't "cold" here anyway.

The plan was to make a relatively traditional version, with ginger, cinnamon, clove, cardamom,  and vanilla.   Only the clove wasn't a relatively fresh version, since I only had ground clove to work with.  Ginger is sort of the central spice, as I see it, and I used ginger from a fresh root, grated just prior to making the tea.  I added salt, really an optional element, but in the right limited proportion it makes a big difference.

I did add one extra ingredient, one non-standard variation, based on experience from that Christmas blend,  adding a little orange zest (fresh grated orange peel).  Since I wanted to keep the original flavor profile I only added a little, relative to the other spices.  Based on that earlier Christmas blend experimentation, it would also work well to thinly peel the outer orange skin layer and dry it (on low heat in an oven for half an hour, maybe) and use the dried version later as an ingredient.  Steps like drying change flavor profiles a little, so that could work even better, or maybe not quite as well, or it might be equivalent but different.


The cardamom was from pods, the cinnamon ground from a stick on a grater immediately before, and vanilla from bean pods.  Ordinarily that would make for an expensive tea but those didn't cost so much in a Bali grocery store, at least if you don't factor in airfare to get there.  For tea I used a commercial grade black tea from Indonesia and a better black tea from Vietnam, tea a bit too good for blending, but it's what I had.

I'm no cardamom or spice expert but this was the input Wikipedia offers about types, and it seems clear enough it was "black cardamom:"

There are two main types of cardamom:

True or green cardamom (or, when bleached, white cardamom[10]) comes from the species Elettaria cardamomum and is distributed from India to Malaysia.

Black cardamom, also known as brown, greater, longer, or Nepal cardamom, comes from two species, Amomum costatum and Amomum subulatum, which are distributed mainly in Asia and Australia.

Production and tasting

tea and spices, a bit scary looking

I boiled it all for about 10 minutes, then strained out that tea to drink and re-steeped using fresh water twice to see what would be left, and the next two steeps were still plenty strong.  For whatever reason it made sense to me to boil the tea and spices some first then add the milk to boil some with milk included, but I don't think it made much difference to do it that way versus just mixing it all.

The tea was nice, a bit thick.  At first it seemed the salt level was too much but after adjusting milk and sugar level to offset the tea and spice strength it was fine, just better the second time when it had washed out, but still ok initially.

The clove picked up a little the second infusion, and the vanilla was strongest the third.  I think the exceptional thickness and creaminess was coming directly from the vanilla, but really that thick feel to the tea was hard to place.  A lot of times reviews will say an ordinary tea has a full body or feel to it but nothing like this; it was close to the effect of eating custard, nothing like using a good bit of milk would cause.

tea boiling with milk added

It made too much tea to drink in one sitting (although I did consume an outrageous amount of it, maybe four 10-12 ounce mugs of very strong tea) so I chilled the last bit to try later in a cold-tea version.  It was nice cold, just really, really, thick.

Lessons learned

In a sense the general approach was to try making this tea in a way that resembled cooking, to use trial and error, to mix the blend by feel.  I had made masala chai a few times before, when I first wrote a post about different recipe and process research and variations, and again when an intern from Nepal gave me a commercial pre-mixed version to work with, so this is the third time to experiment with it in a year.

The spice balance was ok in this version; it worked out.  I didn't really add enough cardamom to let that show through well but somehow it was more evident in the chilled version the next day.  In general the tea was probably too strong initially, but the nice thing about the tea type is you can dilute it with milk and add a little more sugar to compensate, even if the normal process is to just cook it in the final form, based on a recipe.  The varying forms of the spices made them stand out more in different infusions, since I prepared it that way, with ginger washing out first, and then clove picking up, as I'd noted.  There's something about how fresh vanilla shifts things that really made the overall effect work out, a depth it adds that pulled all the rest together well.

It's best to carefully limit the salt, and I didn't get that perfectly right, but it would've been possible to mix the first and second "infusion," but not necessary since it wasn't really that far off.  It was hard to really taste what the orange zest added since I kept that input level low to retain the normal general profile, but I think I liked it.

Related to tea dosage, it's best to make it for more than one person, but there just isn't anyone else in my household that will drink masala chai.  I think re-heating the tea later would work but I didn't try that.  The tea I drank when I first made it added up to a lot of caffeine to be taking in at one go but I think I felt the spice effects more.  I'm reminded of visiting Indian food lunch buffets as an intern a long time ago, how we would feel the effects of those spices in the afternoon, and imagined that we must have smelled like those spices (but we probably really didn't).  Living in Thailand I've acquired a tolerance for curries but it's a different mix of ingredients in those.

As for what to change, cooking time is always an issue, an obvious place for experimentation.  I only gave the initial version a 10 minute simmer, which was why the tea and spices could make two weaker batches / infusions after.  Some recipes (mentioned in that first post I cited a link for) called for two stages of short boiling mixed with long steeps, and other online anecdotal input claimed one could boil the tea and spice and milk blend for a very long time to get the most out of it.

The final "strength" or concentration level is also a good opportunity for adjustment; diluted to 1/4th the strength I drank the first batch at would probably make more sense.  But I liked it strong, and subjective preference carries the decision making.  As for spicing variation I've added nutmeg before, but there was already plenty going on for this version as it was.