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Masala Chai – Indian Railroad Tea

Chai
Photo courtesy of Shrk

It took me YEARS to finally figure this one out. Tea is such a simple thing. You would think.

After I’m-not-kidding like 20 years of stumbling around and finally all but giving up, I finally figured out the secret to authentic Indian railroad tea.

It’s using CHEAP TEA. The cheaper the better. CHEAP CHEAP CHEAP. The stuff that sells for like $4 a lb. Not that expensive Assam or Darjeeling that’ll set you back $16 to $20 for 4 oz. CHEAP CHEAP CHEAP loose granulated (mamri-style) black unflavored tea, the kind of stuff that looks frighteningly like gunpowder.

You can buy this ultra cheap tea at any Indian grocery or online. But more on that later.

Chai is just the Hindi word for “tea”. So if you ask for “chai tea” you are asking for tea tea. And if the brand of tea you are using is Tata, then Tata chai tea is the same as saying Tata Tea Tea. (Sorry, I can’t resist puns and alliteration. Get used to it if you’re going to read my blog, LOL!)

What we are talking about is spiced tea, or masala chai. Now there are a LOT of different ways to make this, and most are probably about as “authentic” as the next, but this recipe is my favorite. It tastes the most like the stuff the vendors hawk at the railroad stations and hand through the windows to travelers.

If you’ve been drinking “Chai tea” from Starbucks, or the stuff labeled “Chai” that comes in cartons at the yuppy organic groceries, be warned – that’s not Indian Railroad Tea. It’s not what most Indians I know think of when they talk about masala chai. That stuff has all sorts of extra ingredients like vanilla and cinnamon and who knows what else in it that you wouldn’t find in Indian Railroad Tea because the watchword of the day is “tasty”, yes, but also “CHEAP”.

Chai Wallah
Photo courtesy of Shabbir Siraj

CHEAP CHEAP CHEAP. A category not to be achieved if you are loading the tea up with vanilla, cinnamon, ginger, and whatnot. Also it detracts from the simplicity of the recipe, which is another requirement for Indian Railroad Tea. These guys are (or at least used to be) brewing this stuff by the gallon right there by the railroad tracks, or at least as close to the station as they can get and not get arrested. Then they send runners out with trays and trays of the stuff, steaming hot, as the train pulls into the station. Then there’s a mad flurry while competing runners (often from competing tea makers) jostle and jockey to be the first to sell out and run back for more. I’ve seen runners working in relays, where one guy pushes his way to the front of the crowd, empties his tray, and runs back to the back of the crowd to grab another trayful from a confederate, sort of like a bucket brigade only for tea.

So anyway, quick, easy, tasty, and CHEAP are the watchwords for Indian railroad tea.

Masala Chai – Indian Railroad Tea

By Kitchen Barbarian

Published 05/18/2009

This is not your Starbucks Chai here. But it’s REALLY REALLY good, and a heck of a lot cheaper than $6.75 a cup.

DO NOT try to substitute ground spices for the whole seed. You won’t be able to strain it out and the proportions won’t be right. Use the whole spices as indicated. You can substitute cardamom in the pod for the hulled cardamom, but I prefer to use the hulled variety (loose seed) because it’s easier to deal with, cleaner, and generally cheaper ounce for ounce.

It’s important to use a CHEAP granulated tea – for years I tried to make this using the best Darjeeling and Asaam teas that I could find and it never came out right. The cheap granulated tea (basically what we put in tea bags) is the key – it takes a strong flavored tea to stand up to the flavor imparted by the spices. This stuff will be labeled “CTC” or “mamri-style” tea.

You will need

  • A small sauce pan
  • A very very fine mesh strainer or a “regular” strainer lined with floursack cloth or cheesemaking muslin (NOT the gauzy cheesecloth from the grocery or hardware store)
  • another pan, pitcher, or bowl larger enough to hold the (still hot! so no plastic!) tea after straining

Ingredients

  • 2 c water
  • 2 c whole milk
  • 1 T fennel seed
  • 1 1/2 tsp whole hulled cardamom, or 6 to 8 bruised cardamom pods, to taste
  • 4 to 6 whole cloves
  • 4 T Indian CTC mamri-style (granulated) loose tea, or 4 to 6 cheap unflavored black tea bags
  • Sugar to taste

Instructions

  1. Boil the water. Add the whole spices and leave at a slow boil for 3 minutes.
  2. Add the WHOLE milk and bring back to a slow boil.
  3. Add the tea or tea bags and boil on low for no more than 2 to 3 minutes. It can get bitter if you leave it on the heat longer than that.
  4. Remove from the stove, strain, and serve.
  5. Add sugar (or artificial sweetener) to taste.

The brand of mamri-style tea that I most often use is Brooke Bond Red Label. I’ve also occassionally used Brooke Bond Taj Mahal and Tea India. There are cheaper mamri-style teas and they work fine too, but be warned – you may need to experiment with the amount and the brewing length. Some teas costing as little as $2 a pound (454 grams is about a pound, that’s a common size for Indian packaged teas) will quickly get bitter if you brew them too long. With cheaper teas you may need to cut brewing time (after you add the tea to the boiling water/milk) to 2 minutes instead of 3, and you may need to use a little more tea to make up for the shorter brewing time. Be prepared to experiment a bit.

Also, you do NOT allow this tea to steep. You brew it and then you strain it through a very fine strainer immediately upon removing it from the heat. Allowing it to steep will make it bitter.

Finally, if you can’t find an authentic mamri-style tea, you can try cheap tea bags. Again, you may need to experiment a bit to get the flavor right. One of these days I’m going to buy some cheap decaf tea bags and try for a decaf version, because I have a sensitivity to caffeine and if I drink a whole quart of masala chai (which I will cheerfully do because the stuff is like liquid crack to me) I will be pinging off the ceiling for hours.

Now, where to buy ingredients? You can buy from a local Indian Grocery or you can buy from an online source. I’ve often found the spices I need in Organic Groceries that have bulk spices for sale. You CAN buy the spices in any grocery store, but in the amounts used here you’ll find them to be very very expensive. The mamri-style tea I’ve never found outside an Indian or International grocery.

To locate an Indian Grocery near you (in the USA):

Thokaloth.com Indian Grocery Locator
SearchIndia.com Indian Grocery Locator

And here are some online resources as well:

iShopIndian.com
India Spice House
India Blend
Indian Foods Co

A Google search will probably turn up some more if you want to look around.

That’s it! It took me longer to tell you how to make it than it will take you to actually make it.

Tasty, quick, simple, easy, and cheap. My favorite kind of recipe!

Tags: Chai, masala chai, Indian railroad tea, spiced tea, Indian tea, vegetarian, Indian

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8 responses »

  1. Finally! I've tried making masala chai like 30 times in the past month or 2, and last week I came across this. I was using good darjeeling/sikkim tea, and was really confused with the recipes for the chai because the milk was so overpowering, but it was the tea that was so underpowered. Anyway I've tried a few times using tea bags because at the time I couldn't find mamri tea, and that was so much closer, and than I got some of that red bond stuff, which worked well and tasted and looked so much closer to the real thing, and this morning, I randomly looked in my bag of indian stuff and found what I thought before was spice, but it turns out it was ctc style darjeeling tea that a family told me to get, and I used that, and boiled it correctly (when I used red bond I never boiled it long enough), and today it tasted just as good as I remember!Anyway sorry for the blabble haha, just really excited that it worked(it's like crack to me too), and wanted to say thanks for finding out that it was the type of tea! and thanks for the recipe as well!

    Reply
  2. This is fabulouis masala chai! I was browsing the internet for a good chai recipe and when I saw the photo you included, I was, like, "THAT's the chai I've been looking for!" Luckily, I had whole fennel, cardamom, and cloves on hand, and the results were excellent. Thanks for posting!I used cheese cloth to strain the tea, but I'm wondering – is there a special type of strainer you can buy? If so, where?

    Reply
  3. Sorry for the long gap – I've had personal stuff going on, LOL! I got my very very fine mesh strainer at Target. You can probably find a very very fine mesh strainer at about any department store with a decent kitchen section (NOT Walmart or Kmart)Hope that's helpful, and again, sorry for the delay.

    Reply
  4. Ah. LOVELY. Am just going off to make myself some, just now!=Deepa.

    Reply
  5. Wont it get bitter if you boil it with the tea in it??

    I’ve been making a very similar recipe with cheap tea bags. I simmer the spices, then add the tea and take it off the heat and let it covered for a few, take out the bags, then add milk and sweetener and bring it back to a simmer.

    I just picked up the CHEAP mamri assam by chance for shits and giggles and it says on the package to brew it like your recipe.

    I guess I need to try it….. Just scared of bitterness…

    Reply
    • If you only boil it for 2 or 3 minutes and then remove it from the heat it will not become bitter. The exact time that you can stretch it out varies depending on the brand (actually probably its the cut and quality that causes the variation). However there is no real need to stretch it out as 2 or 3 minutes is more than sufficient to extract the maximum flavor from the tea leaves.

      Your method (letting it steep and then returning to the boil) would risk bitterness when using mamri style tea – stick to the method in the recipe and you’ll be fine.

      Feel free to experiment with the amounts and types of spices though – I have recently decided that I may be perhaps using more cardamom seed than may be strictly needed, but haven’t experimented to see the effect on the flavor yet.

      Reply
  6. I just wanted to write that I have been following your method and making a very satisfying chai. Thanks!

    You do not mention a second wash with the remains — any suggestions on how to do that and avoid bitterness? I have tried it quite unsuccessfully and wonder if it is my method that is defective, or if to attempt to do so is simply ill-advised altogether.

    Reply
    • You may be able to “recycle” the spices – but not the tea leaves. The difficulty being, of course, that you would have to sieve them out BEFORE adding the tea. The problem is the cut of the leaf in a mamri style tea – it will release the more bitter volatiles after just 2 or 3 minutes of boiling.

      You may have success adding the spices in a small tea ball and removing that – you may be able to get a second pot out of them. I had actually not thought of trying that, and I am SUPER cheap. I will have to try it myself.

      Reply

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