Thursday, November 20, 2008

Veggie Might: Masala Chai of Gratitude

Written by the fabulous Leigh, Veggie Might is a regular Thursday feature about all things Vegetarian.

(Part three of three in a series of healthyish dessertish things for the impending holiday madness.)

"Part three?" you may be asking, "What more can I do for these lactose-intolerant, gluten-free vegans?" How about welcoming them into your home with a big steaming cuppa to thank them for A) being your awesome friends, 2) forcing you try new things, baking-wise, and M) just being the supafreaks they are.

With Thanksgiving around the bend, I’ve been thinking a lot about gratitude. Sometimes it’s hard when I feel I’m constantly reminded of what’s missing from my life. The news reminds me daily, if not minutely, that the economy is on a barge to Fresh Kills, and that food prices are rising along with sea levels.

But this lean time is the perfect time to focus on bounty, to look around and say, "Hey Leigh. You’re doing pretty well: your brain works for the most part, you have a great family of friends and family types, and you are not starving." Or you could use your own name and circumstances.

The perfect accompaniment for Thanking and cold-weather gatherings: a cup of masala chai out of your favorite mug from your favorite late-night hangout in your college town that takes you back to a time when cares were scarce even though money was more so.

Masala chai is Hindi for spice tea. Chai derives from cha, the Chinese word for tea. At this point in the post, the grammar/word nerd in me must inform you that “chai tea” is a pleonasm, like ATM machine or A.M. in the morning. Don’t be that guy/gal. Chai means tea. If you say “I’ll have the chai tea, you’re saying “I’ll have the tea tea,” which could be horribly misconstrued.

I’m a tea person. Coffee just never did it for me. Believe me, I tried in college; I tried in summer stock. During my years as a waitron, I poured enough coffee on 2­ to 3 hours sleep that I’d do anything to make it through my shift. But when you’re having more milk and sugar than coffee, and oh yeah could I have a little ice cream with that?, it’s time to stop kidding yourself.

Over the years, I’ve been perfecting my masala blend. I like mine fiery-spicy, so I go heavy on the black pepper and ginger. Cardamom is also my best favorite spice friend. It tastes like warm. Sometimes I put it in my chai by itself.

There are hundreds of masala chai recipes on the Web if you want to experiment with different spices and quantities. Go crazy. The most common spices are cinnamon, cardamom, clove, black pepper, and fresh ginger. Optional, but also tasty additions can be nutmeg, allspice, fennel, bay leaf, and star anise. It’s best to use a hearty black tea like assam or keemun. Darjeeling is a bit too light to stand up to the flavors of the spices.

The only hard and fast rule is one held by tea drinkers the world around: Do not boil your tea leaves. The order of operations here is very important. To really get the flavor of the spices, they need to be boiled; but tea leaves are more delicate. Boiling causes the tea to become bitter.

Boil the spices first, turn of the heat, then add the tea leaves and brew. It’s that simple. Tea tip for the ages: Never boil tea leaves. Ever. Oversteeping is bad too. A friend who used to work in a tea shop once told me: Brew, don’t stew. Three to five minutes is the longest tea leaves should steep.

Before I started writing this, I started feeling a little insecure. Just how authentic was my masala? I asked my friend P, who is from Northern India. He told me I was off-base with the anise seed in my original recipe, so out it came. I couldn’t tell the difference when it was gone. We need never speak of it again.

This is a strong brew, just the way I like it. It’s also malleable; bend it, shape it any way you want it. It’s all right. The recipe is easily increased or decreased.

The traditional way to drink masala chai is with milk, but you can go skim or soy/rice if you’re cutting back on fat/calories/cholesterol. I made this recipe with soy because it’s a little heartier than rice milk and stands up better to the cooking. Of course, there is no rule that you have to have milk at all. But for a nice holiday treat, it is comforting and delicious.

Thank U, India; thank u cardamom, and thank u to all my spicy friends. Happy T day.

Masala Chai of Gratitude
Yields 4 cups

3 cinnamon sticks
1/2 tsp cloves
1/2 tsp black peppercorns
1 tsp cardamom pods (about 20 pods)
2 knobs fresh ginger (about 1/4 oz
3 tbsp loose black tea (i use keemun)
3 tbsp clover honey (sub turbinado sugar or agave nectar for a true vegan bev)
1 1/3 cup soy milk
3 cups water

1) Wrap cinnamon sticks in a kitchen towel and crush with hammer or rubber mallet.

2) In a coffee or spice grinder (or mortar and pestle if you’re old school), grind cloves, peppercorns, and cardamom pods for 10­ to 15 seconds.

3) Peel and dice ginger.

4) In a sauce pan, bring to a boil 3 cups of water and all spices. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes.

5) Add soy milk and honey, and bring back to a boil, stirring occasionally.

6) Turn off heat. Add tea leaves and cover.

7) Steep for 2-3 minutes.

8) Strain into teapot or mugs and serve hot.

Approximate Calories, Fat, and Price per Serving
94 calories, 1.8g fat, $.30

3 cinnamon sticks: negligible calories and fat, $.18
1/2 tsp cloves: negligible calories and fat, $.02
1/2 tbsp black peppercorns: negligible calories and fat, $.02
1 tsp cardamom pods: negligible calories and fat, $.04
1 knob fresh ginger: 45 calories, 0g fat, $.03
3 tbsp loose black tea: 18 calories, 0 g fat, $.12
3 tbsp clover honey:192 calories, 0g fat, $.38
1 1/3 cup soy milk: 120 calories, 4.7g fat, $.40
TOTALS: 375 calories, 4.7g fat, $1.19
PER SERVING: 94 calories, 1.8g fat, $.30

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Anonymous said...

This looks awsome! I've been looking for a good chai recipe for awhile now and can't wait to try it, but could you clarify the amount of tea leaves to add? Thanks!

Leigh said...

D'oh! Sorry! I originally planned to scale the recipe for a huge crowd, then I thought better of it, and created a typo. Bad editor, bad!

The amount of tea should be 3 tbsp, not 3 cups. I'll edit the recipe accordingly.

Thanks for the catch! I hope you like it.

Distar said...

I think the don't boil the tea leaves rule depends on what tea leaves you're using. most South Asian tea leaves, atleast the ones I'm familiar with, and the ones used to make chai are always boiled to release the full strong flavour. never seen it made any other way. but you're right- I always let the spices boil in the water, and allow the tea leaves never to boil more than a minute or so before adding the milk....

love love love chai with ginger and cardamom.

also the masala chai is somewhat of an American/western created term- we never ask for masala chai back home. it's just assumed that some make it with the masala and some with it. you don't go to someone's home/tea shop and ask for it.

Anonymous said...

My cousin makes a version of this, but microwaves the soy milk separate and then she adds the chai concoction, the soy milk retains more creaminess this way. I do not know why

Heather said...

do you mean 20 cardomom seeds? 20 pods would be much more than a teaspoon, wouldn't it?
Looks good, I've been trying to perfect my chai recipe. Might try yours tonight though. :-)

Lori Ann said...

Yumm. I linked to this post on simplemakes (see at

Thanks for the post :-) Any comments on mine will be much appreciated! :-)

Anuradha said...

Love your comment on 'Chai Tea'. Some tips from an Indian - drop soy milk and use skimmed cow milk - it will taste better. Instead of all the spices which you may not use elsewhere, use fresh ginger . Grate a small piece of ginger and boil it with water, then tea as usual. Ginger is great for your respiratory systems and reducing stress levels. You can even use couple of pinches of dried ginger poweder. Most Indians use Ginger in Masala Chai in place of spices