Karak chai, cutting chai, masala chai whatever you call it, (unless you call it chai tea latte, then we need to have a serious talk) there is nothing more comforting that a nice hot cuppa.
Chai is an institution for us Desi. It’s what you serve to any and all visitors. It is what you have when you are up late working, or chatting with friends. If it’s a cold day – drink some chai to warm up. If it is a hot day – drink some chai to cool down (I don’t get this one, but so many swear by it!).
What is chai?
Honestly, for us, chai just means tea. Any kind of black tea with milk is a chai. So even taking any old tea bag and dipping it in hot water is essentially chai for us. But when you talk about a karak chai, masala chai or a cutting chai, that is what I think most non-desi types in North America would consider ‘chai’. And that is what we are talking about today.
J is the tea lover in our house. I like it, but definitely don’t need it on a daily basis like J does. He is a true desi and will honestly drink tea any time of day. He is always looking for an excuse to have some chai. But the chai cravings come on the strongest for him whenever we watch a Bollywood movie. Without fail at some point in the movie there will be a scene where they are drinking some cutting chai (a half portion of chai in a tiny cup – preferably a tiny glass cup) and he will immediately start going on about how he misses the chai from India. Which will be followed by him going into the kitchen to make his own version at home.
So, we definitely drink a lot of chai around here.
What is a karak chai?
Karak literally translates to ‘stiff’. So a karak chai means a very strong or concentrated tea. You get the concentrated flavour of the chai from simmering it on the stove with tea leaves, water and milk for a while to really let the flavour intensify as the liquid evaporates. Obviously there are many different ways to make a karak chai. Some prefer to boil the tea leaves in water first, and then add the milk at the end. Some will boil them all together from the start (that’s my parents way). Some will add spices for a masala chai or add fresh ginger to make it an adrak (ginger) chai. Some will just leave it as is, or simply add a pod or two of cardamom while it cooks. No matter how you flavour your chai, the constant remains to boil your tea leaves in the water for a good amount of time to let the flavour intensify and develop to get that deep chai flavour.
My in-laws will even make karak chai in the microwave! Essentially boiling loose tea leaves in water in a large mug for several minutes in the microwave until the flavour develops.
So the most important part of making the perfect karak or masala chai is to let the tea leaves or tea bags boil with the water for a period of time.
How to make a masala chai?
Masala chai, is taking your karak chai to the next level by adding various spices to it to suit your taste. Again here, there are many different variations. This is a non-exhaustive list of some common spices that go into a masala chai:
- Fresh Ginger
- Black Pepper
- Star Anise
Add any one, or combination of these to flavour your masala chai. It really is about what flavours you like. Experiment with different flavour mixes till you find your favourite combo. Probably the most common spices we add to our chais are cardamom or ginger.
For the best flavour, it is best to use the whole form of the spices. Give them a light crush with a mortar and pestle just before adding the spices to the chai mixture as you bring it to a boil. In a pinch powdered spices will do, just make sure to use less because the flavour will be much more intense with powdered versions. Again the spices need to boil in the chai to develop the flavour of the chai. And you will need to use a fine mesh sieve or strainer to strain the spices from the chai when you are ready to serve. Alternatively, I Like putting my whole crushed spices into a DIY tea bag or tea steeper like the ones shown below so I don’t need to strain. I can just pull out the tea bag and go.
Honestly, every chai I make at home is different depending on what spices I feel like adding. I couldn’t decide which I like best, so I’ve shared two of my favourite versions below – One is a spicy ginger masala chai, the other is a more delicate saffron cardamom chai. Let me know which one you would prefer?
Some like their chai on the sweet side and add sugar or honey while the ingredients are boiling. But honestly, I have found that the creaminess of a full fat milk adds enough of a subtle sweetness that I don’t need any additional sugar or sweetener in mine.
What is the best tea leaves for making chai at home?
Again this comes down to personal preference and what you have available to you. Us desi’s are very particular about our tea leaves. Litterally every household I have visited has their own preferred brand of tea leaves. And each will defend till the death their own choice of tea leaves! So I will not even presume to tell you which one is better over the other. There is no such thing. Just whatever flavours you like, is what is best.
Generally though most will use either a black, assam or orange pekoe types of tea. And please don’t buy those blends with the spices already mixed in. Trust me, creating your own blend of spices is much yummier, and the flavour of a freshly crushed spice is totally worth the few seconds of extra effort. (Some of the chai mixes are good in a pinch though, so feel free to use them if you must! No judgement here!) But honestly, I find adding my own spices helps me really control the flavour better. And it really it really isn’t that much more difficult to make chai from scratch once you know the secret – let things boil together and the flavours intensify!
When I went to Pakistan many years ago, my uncle took us to his chai merchant who sold all sorts of tea leaves. My uncle had his own special blend of different tea leaves for the chai they made at home. The blend they created had like 2 or 3 different varieties of tea in it. I don’t even think they told me which ones because it was such a secret blend! And my uncle also likes to add dried lemongrass to his tea as it boils for an added flavour enhancer. It is subtle but worth a try if you happen to have some! Honestly if am every lucky enough to visit again, going to the market to buy fresh tea leaves from the merchant would be on the top of my list of things to do in Pakistan! (Along with a whole list of other mostly food related things! 😉
One thing most will agree though, is that the best flavour will come from using a loose leaf tea over a tea bag. But honestly, I mostly make chai out of my basic orange pekoe tea bags like Tetley, Red Rose or Tea India, and it turns out great!
Ideally, it is a loose leaf tea so the tea leaves really have a chance to bloom in the boiling liquid. But honestly at home we are pretty lazy and I use tea bags, mostly because it is a much easier clean up. No straining needed. Just pull out the tea bags once your chai is ready, pour and drink. We use a standard orange pekoe tea in most cases. And at night, if we want some karak chai, I will make it with decaf tea bags because even the littlest bit of caffeine after 6pm will have me up till 3 am!
The secret to make a perfect chai at home
So these are the secrets (or at the very least the common denominator that I’ve noticed) to making the perfect karak chai at home:
- Boil the water with the tea leaves till the liquid starts to reduce, the longer you simmer, the better the deeper the flavour!
- If you want to add spices, use the whole version and slightly crush them before adding them to the boiling liquid.
- The spice blend you use is totally up to your taste preference – there is no right way to do it.
- Sugar is optional , but if using, also add it in while the liquid is boiling.
- Whole milk is best, as it adds the creaminess and authentic flavour to the chai. (But dairy free milks will work too!)
Which chai would you rather? The creamy and slightly floral saffron or the more complex spiced ginger chai? Let me know if you try them, and which one you prefer?
Saffron Karak Chai
- 1 cup water
- 1 cup milk of choice (whole milk or oat milk are best for a super creamy flavour)
- 1 cardamom pod
- 1 pinch saffron
- 1-2 tsp loose leaf tea or tea bags (I recommend either a black, orange pekoe or assam tea leaf)
- sugar or honey (optional – to taste)
- In a small saucepan add the water, milk and tea leaves. Bring to a boil on medium high heat.
- While the tea is boiling, add the cardamom pod and saffron to a mortar and pestle and gently crush (if you don't have a mortar and pestle, just gently break it up in your fingers before you add to the boiling liquid). They don't have to be powdered, just broken down slightly to release their aroma. Add to the boiling mixture.
- Add any honey or sweetener, if using, and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down to medium-low and let it simmer for at least 5-10 minutes so the liquid reduces slightly. Honestly, the longer you let it boil the better. You will know it is ready when you see the line of where the liquid used to be is about 1/4 inch (1 cm or so) lower than the original liquid line. And the bubbles on the surface will be a dark brown colour.
- Place a fine mesh sieve or strainer over your serving cups or mugs. Gently pour the chai into the strainer over the serving cups to remove any bits of spices, tea leaves or bags etc.
- Serve immediately. Preferably with some sweet or savoury snacks!
Easy Ginger Masala Chai
- 1 cup water
- 1 cup milk of choice (whole milk or oat milk is recommended for an extra creamy flavour)
- 1-2 tsp tea leaves or tea bags (I recommend either black, orange pekoe or assam tea variety)
- 1 whole cardamom pod
- 1 whole clove
- 1 whole black pepper
- pinch turmeric
- 1 slice fresh ginger (about 1/2 tsp crushed)
- sugar or honey (optional – to taste)
- In a small saucepan, add the water, milk, and tea leaves. Bring to a boil over medium high heat while you prepare the spices.
- Place all the spices (except ginger) into a mortar and pestle and crush slightly to release the smell and flavours of the spices (if you do not have a mortar and pestle, just skip this step).
- Add all the slightly crushed spices and ginger into the boiling liquid and turn the heat down to medium low. Simmer for 5-10 minutes to allow the flavours to intensify and liquid to reduce by about 1/8 to 1/4. The longer it simmers the better. You will know it is done when a thin film starts forming on top and you see the line at the edge of the pan where the liquid has reduced.
- When done, turn off the heat and gently strain using a fine mesh strainer over your serving cups or mugs.
- Serve immediately. Enjoy!
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